Pamela and I met through social media.
Pamela Binnings Ewen is the author of one non-fiction book, Faith on Trial, and six novels, including The Moon in the Mango Tree, awarded the 2012 Eudora Welty Memorial Award. She practiced law for many years before retiring to write. Her newest book, The Queen of Paris, a novel on Coco Chanel, is the story of Chanel’s secret life during the Nazi occupation of Paris in WWII. Pamela lives in Louisiana, near New Orleans. Visit Pamela at pamelaewen.com.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m a reformed lawyer. Practiced corporate law for twenty-five years in Houston, Texas. I loved every minute of it, but after my first book, Faith on Trial (non-fiction), was published, I retired to write full time. The Queen of Paris, a novel on Coco Chanel, is my seventh book. Now I live near New Orleans with my husband, our lab, and a very talkative parrot.
When did you know you wanted to be an author?
From an early age and all through childhood I loved books—loved to read. In the fifth grade I taught myself how to type and wrote a ‘book’. (It was pretty much a rip-off on Little Women.) This was a great experience. I kept writing on a random basis just for myself after that. I never thought of it as potential career, however. As a young adult, I worked at various jobs, but at the age of twenty-five found myself pretty much on my own with a young son to support. This was a real wake-up call. So, I took a job at Tulane University in New Orleans in order to obtain free tuition for college courses. After I graduated, I received a scholarship for two years of law school and began working my way through school all over again. Just got on that treadmill and started to run! But always, everywhere, my spare time was spent reading. (It’s great escapism!)
What genres do you like to read? Are these the same genres you write in?
I love to read and write historical fiction, although two of my books don’t fall into that category. For one thing, I love the research with historical fiction. It’s fascinating the things you find. For instance, did you know that M&M candies were invented for soldiers in WWII? The chocolate was a treat and energizer, but chocolate melted under battle conditions. So, someone had the great idea to put hard colored shells around dabs of chocolate. The shell kept the candy from melting in the soldiers’ pockets. Thus—M&M’s!
Also, with historical fiction here’s something thrilling about knowing that what you’re writing is based to a large extent on facts.
Is your book for adults, young adults or children?
I think both adults and young adults will be interested in this book. For young adults, I’m thinking from perhaps the age of 16 or 17 on—someone who already likes to read. Someone who likes history too.
What is your current release or project?
My newest book is The Queen of Paris, a novel on Coco Chanel. It is fiction based on fact—I think of this as writing in the shadows of history. In The Queen of Paris, I discovered things about Coco Chanel that I don’t think most people ever knew, information only available in recently released WWII military files. To my knowledge this is the first book of fiction exposing Coco’s secret life in Paris during WWII, as the Nazi’s occupied France. She made some explosive decisions during those years, things I don’t think anyone would have guessed. My quest, however, was not just to tell story, but also to understand why she did the things she did. And I think I found the answers. Foreward Reviews said something I love in their review–that The Queen of Paris has opened a new door in the House of Chanel!
Tell us about the key characters
The key character is Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel. Coco lives in the Paris Hotel Ritz during the German occupation of France, along with the Nazi High Command. Because of the war she has closed her couture business, and as a result, she relies upon revenues from No. 5. But, because of the war she’s under threat of losing her rights to No. First, she’s under pressure from her Jewish partner who has fled to New York prior to Hitler’s invasion of France, taking her secret formula for No. 5 with him. Even though No. 5 was a French company owned by her partner, his brother, and Chanel. And second, she is pressed by Reich Marshal Hermann Goring’s greed and his attempts to claim rights to the perfume for himself and Germany. In fact, Coco used every weapon at hand to protect her legacy and No. 5, including new anti-Semetic German laws prohibiting Pierre, as a Jew, from owning and selling No. 5. Coco fights her own personal wars on these two fronts when the final blow strikes—she finds that her beloved nephew was captured by the Germans at the Maginot Line, and is missing, or possibly dead.
Coco’s lover, Hans von Dincklage, known as Spatz, is a Nazi spy with the Abwehr, which is German military intelligence. He is tall and handsome, a ladies man. Spatz offers to assist Coco in her search for her nephew, as well as in her battle with Pierre over No. 5. But the price for his help is high. In turn, she must agree to spy for the Reich. Desperate, Coco at last agrees under certain conditions, even though she’d be committing treason.
I began writing this story after viewing photographs of Chanel’s WWII military files showing that she was indeed recruited as a spy by the Abwehr. Wanting to understand why she made that choice and others just as electrifying, I researched the questions. As a result, The Queen of Paris includes brief, but pertinent, flashbacks to Chanel’s painful early life, moments that would have influenced her many years later. Moments that were ‘turnings’ in her life.
I make no judgements in the book. That is left to each reader. In an Authors Note at the end, I’ve given explanations as to which parts of the story are true, and which parts are based on interesting circumstantial evidence–what I’ve referred to above as ‘writing in the shadows’.
What is your blurb or synopsis of the book?
Legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel is revered for her sophisticated style—the iconic little black dress—and famed for her intoxicating perfume Chanel No. 5. Yet behind the public persona is a complicated woman of intrigue, shadowed by mysterious rumors. The Queen of Paris vividly imagines the hidden life of Chanel during the four years of Nazi occupation in Paris in the midst of WWII—as discovered in recently unearthed wartime files.
Coco Chanel could be cheerful, lighthearted, and generous; she also could be ruthless, manipulative, even cruel. Against the winds of war, with the Wehrmacht marching down the Champs-Élysées, Chanel finds herself residing alongside the Reich’s High Command in the Hotel Ritz. Surrounded by the enemy, Chanel wages a private war of her own to wrestle full control of her perfume company from the hands of her Jewish business partner, Pierre Wertheimer. With anti-Semitism on the rise, he has escaped to the United States with the confidential formula for Chanel No. 5. Distrustful of his intentions to set up production on the outskirts of New York City, Chanel fights to seize ownership. The House of Chanel shall not fall.
While Chanel struggles to keep her livelihood intact, Paris sinks under the iron fist of German rule. Chanel—a woman made of sparkling granite—will do anything to survive. She will even agree to collaborate with the Nazis in order to protect her darkest secrets. When she is covertly recruited by Germany to spy for the Reich, she becomes Agent F-7124, code name: Westminster. But why? And to what lengths will she go to keep her stormy past from haunting her future?
Share an excerpt.
I, Coco Chanel, have discovered
The first rule of survival:
Trust no one but yourself.
Paris, Place Vendome
Once, all of Paris lay at my feet, and Europe, too. The World was mine. Even after I closed the House of Chanel in 1939 in a fit of pique, my luminous No. 5 still sold, until Pierre stole it away. No. 5 was perfection. It infused my legend, lit my world like a brilliant star held in the weightless universe by the sheer grace of unknown powers. That perfume bore my name, making me famous and, until now, rich beyond my dreams. Like me, No. 5 has staying power—the sillage of it, the persistence—a ghostlike scent that lingers in the air even after substance disappears. The problem is that such fragrance triggers memories—for me, and others—and not all of them are good.
I’ve done terrible things. But really, I had no choice. And I always understood the risk. Still, I never thought this moment would come. The Germans have left Paris and there will be no last-minute absolution, not for me. Just ask the howling mob below in the Place Vendome. Yesterday I watched from my rooms in the Hotel Ritz, peering through the lace curtains while vicious thugs stripped a beautiful young woman of her clothes. I think I knew her. But where is her SS lover now? There she stood, naked, while they shaved off her lovely hair. The rabid crowd cheered when they burned swastika upon her forehead.
Oh—I still hear her screams.
There are people down in the streets today—I cannot believe my eyes—a string of women tied together with a rope. They’re called “horizontal collaborators,” the callabos. They weep, they beg, they plead. But with the Nazis gone, this is the time for vengeance.
This is the purge.
Next they will come for me. I tremble like a coward thinking of it. When they come I’ll walk instead of being dragged, even though there’s no one left to care. I am Mademoiselle Chanel, after all. Perhaps they’ll forget about me. Perhaps I’ll call downstairs for a cup of tea. Perhaps it will be my last.
Life is strange. You would think a star as bright as No. 5 could have lifted me up into the light instead of pulling me down into this darkness. It all began with Pierre’s betrayal, I suppose.
Or perhaps my descent began earlier, with Andre’.
France, the region of Provence
Cannes, old and dense, still the rococo queen of the Cote d’Azur, is a palette of muted pastel this early May morning. Spring has arrived in Provence and the light is radiant, glazing the town in an apricot glow. Across the boulevard, the sandy beach is white, and flecks of gold sparkle in the green sea. On the Cote d’Azur you’d never know that the iron fist of the Reich already grips Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, and Denmark. But the gossip around town is that they’re headed this way.
Gabrielle Chanel—Coco to most—does not believe this is true. She sits at a shaded table off the boulevard across from the sea with a cup of tea before her, as she does almost every morning when she’s at La Pausa, her villa on the coast. She glances about, breathing in the fresh salt air. It’s good to get away from Paris for a while, away from the tension of the war, of guessing what comes next, and away from the hoards invading Paris from towns and farms close to the German border. When they realize the migration is all for nothing, they’ll run back home and then Paris will return to normal.
Coco is not worried; merely annoyed. France declared war on Germany nine months ago, and nothing’s happened since. Not here on the Riviera at least. This is a phony war, Coco thinks. Even the Duke and Duchess of Windsor remain in residence not far from here, in Cap d’Antibes. If a German invasion were imminent David would be the first to flee despite his friendship with the German fuhrer. The former king of England—Edward VII, known as David to his inner circle—makes no secret of his admiration for Hitler. And, after David abandoned his throne for the woman he loved, the fuhrer hosted him in Berlin with all the trappings of the throne. But facing a real war is something else. David isn’t nearly as tough as Wallis; the duchess’s pleasant manners and polished exterior hide a needle-sharp spine, which, when necessary, carries the venomous sting of a scorpion fish. Coco has seen Wallis cut other women dead when they get too close to David.
Do you have a favorite scene?
Yes. It’s the last scene in the book. I think it rounds out the story and will give a feeling of satisfaction to the reader. It was also fun to write.
What advice would you give a beginner?
Read to learn how to write. Look for how the great writers create their magic. First, read the old classics—Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth), Virginia Woolf (Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse), F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby, The Beautiful and the Damned), Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), etc. That is how I taught myself to write. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald writes wonderful dialogue. His words are sharp as cut glass, and just flow naturally. I think every beginning writer should also read the best of contemporary books as well. But I would start with the classics.
Second, learn the business of writing. If you are serious, it’s not a hobby. You invest years of your life into the research and writing. So read about the business of writing. Because if you don’t know how to handle what comes next, no one will even know your book exists. You should become involved in local literary and book groups, and similar groups on social networks. Get to know people running your local bookstores. Attend book festivals. Book festivals and conferences are great places to learn, and many of them include an opportunity to meet with an agent or editor and have them read samples of your work. And become active in Goodreads on-line and other on-line book groups—there you’ll find some of the most informed readers in the world, and a bonus is, they’re fun.
And when you’re book is ready to submit, invest in a great website.
The Queen of Paris is now available in e-book, audio, and hard cover at most Independent bookstores, Barnes & Noble and other national and international bookstores, and on-line at Amazon & Nook and other e-book retail sites.