Thursday, July 13, 2023

Q&A with Linda Joy Myers


Photo by Reenie Raschke



Linda Joy Myers is the author of the new historical novel The Forger of Marseilles, which is set during World War II. Her other books include the memoir Don't Call Me Mother


Q: What inspired you to write The Forger of Marseille?


A: I discovered the courage and brave acts of [American journalist] Varian Fry [1907-1967] in a nonfiction book several years ago. When I learned how he’d come to France in 1940 to save artists and anti-Nazis on a Gestapo kill list, I was shocked.


I’d read a great deal about WWII, but I didn’t know about the enormous danger for Jews and other refugees who were trapped in France after the country quickly fell to the Germans. Refugees needed false papers and guides to help them escape the Gestapo and get out of France.


I was a memoirist, and was careful in writing memoir about capturing the truth, so writing fiction was a new adventure. I had to give myself the freedom to make things up!


To give me a sense of the place and ambiance, I visited Marseille and Banyuls-sur-mer, where the refugees met guides to take them over the Pyrenees. Standing on the foothills at the border of the Spain and France, I was inspired by a character who whispered in my ear, telling me that I needed to write this story and he would help!


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I combed through every history book I could find about France and pre-WWII Germany and I learned many things about the politics of France.


An important factor was the exodus from northern France and Paris in June 1940 as people fled from the attacking German army. Just as in the Ukraine now, people were pressed into impossible and life-threatening situations by war and circumstances beyond their control.


I knew almost nothing about Vichy France except that it was a collaborationist government run by a WWI hero, Philippe Petain.

History books offered an overview, but the best sources for the details of life at that time were memoirs by people who’d lived through “history” day to day. I read Varian Fry’s Surrender on Demand and other memoirs more than a dozen times, determined to grasp the struggles and challenges of that time.


My research included trips to Paris, Marseille, and villages along the border of France and Spain where refugees found guides to take them over the Pyrenees. If they made it, they’d get to Lisbon and board a ship for America.


Walking in the footsteps of where history took place feeds the imagination and several threads of my story were born that way.


Q: You include historical figures such as Varian Fry and minister Donald Caskie in the novel--what did you see as the right balance between history and fiction?


A: As is true for many writers of historical fiction, in my early drafts I reveled in each juicy detail I found. A friend calls this “research rapture” and you just want to get everything in.


I wanted to portray the real-life people carefully and treat them with respect. I didn't want to inhabit their minds and bodies—it seemed disrespectful.


My interaction with history and with my characters as the story progressed allowed me to find what I believe was the right balance of history and fiction. All the fiction was based on my research—how real people had lived at that time and what they had done to survive.


Q: The writer Judith Berlowitz called the book “A lesson for nations of today and a call for peace through art.” What do you think of that description?


A: I appreciated that Judith said that, because one of the themes of the book is the importance of music and art and free expression—rights that were stripped by the Reich and the authoritative regime of Vichy in southern France.


Many of the people who Varian Fry saved were artists, writers, and musicians who’d dared to challenge the belief systems of the regime. As early as 1933, the Reich controlled what music could be played or listened to both by Jews and ordinary Germans.


A luthier, a violin maker, is one of my characters who quietly challenges the anti-democratic authorities, and the character of the forger of Marseille is herself an artist. Artists need to be free to express—and in a democracy, we enjoy that freedom.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m interested in capturing more of the unknown stories about Marseille and Vichy France at that time, and exploring the history that most people don’t know about.


This included severe rationing, the French police rounding people up and sending more and more Jews to camps. Children needed food and rescue, and there were betrayers who caused the deaths of many by the Gestapo. There is a rich history still to be mined.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I would like people to learn about history through a story and characters we admire and enjoy reading about—and then I hope they share their knowledge with others. Information is power!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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