Interview with Kristy Manning

12 min read

Kirsty Manning grew up in northern New South Wales, Australia. She has degrees in literature and communications and worked as an editor and publishing manager in book publishing for over a decade. A country girl with wanderlust, her travels and studies have taken her through most of Europe, the east and west coasts of the United States and pockets of Asia. Kirsty’s journalism and photography specializing in lifestyle and travel regularly appear in magazines, newspapers and online. Visit her at www.kirstymanning.com

Girly Book Club: What can you tell our members about your upcoming novel, The French Gift?

Kristy Manning: The French Gift is a dual time-line story of female friendship, longing and sacrifice through war and loss, bringing together the present and the past.

The story begins with Margot Bisset—a French maid on the Riviera—who is convicted of murder after a glamorous party takes a surprising turn. She is interned in a German rayon factory, and develops an unlikely friendship with the brilliant writer and resistance fighter Joséphine Murant. In a German WWII rayon factory, two female prisoners support one another—and others—in horrific circumstances and form an unbreakable bond.

In her later years, Joséphine Murant retires to the Riviera and continues the career she has built as an international bestselling mystery writer.

Overlaying this is a contemporary storyline: the healing, hunt-for-truth story of Evie—and her 17-year-old-son Hugo—as they try to make peace and heal following the tragic death of beloved father/husband, Rafael, two years ago.

Mother and son decide to summer at an old family house in the Riviera—inherited from Rafael’s great-aunt Joséphine Murant—to help local museum director—the handsome and gentle Clément Dumas—prepare a retrospective exhibition.

Together they hunt for a missing manuscript that may uncover their shocking secrets and depth of friendship between the two women.

GBC: Where did the inspiration for The French Gift come from?

KM: I love to explore different angles of well-known epochs. The French Gift is a work of fiction but like all my books, it is inspired by true snippets of history.

A paragraph in the excellent non-fiction book, The Riviera Set by Mary S. Lovell, lit my imagination. She described a decadent party arranged by a famous hostess, where one of the guests is (faux) murdered and the local police were roped in as part of the game.

What fun, I thought! What if I write a book about a decadent murder party … and then it goes wrong.

But I also wanted to write a story inspired by the ordeal of women in WW2 who were forced into labour in factories. We know so little about their history, and I stumbled across a translated version of a memoir by Agnès Humbert.

If you read her memoir—Résistance—(expertly translated into English by Barbara Mellor) you will see Agnès Humbert was: part of the Resistance, member of the subterfuge group Cercle Alain-Fournier, co-founded the clandestine newspaper Résistance, was tried, sentenced and imprisoned for espionage for five years at Cherche-Midi, de la Santé, Fresnes and Anrath prisons and endured forced labour at the Phrix Rayon Factory.

She allegedly recorded her thoughts in a book by Descartes: Discourse on Method and it has been suggested (though not confirmed) that she stored the names and material for 400 Resistance workers under her carpet in her Paris apartment. She was indeed arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo, and allegedly made friends with sympathetic guards and cellmates in both Cherche-Midi Prison and the Phrix Rayon Factory.

Unlike my heroine Josephine, Agnès Humbert was a key figure in the liberation, and stayed in Germany to assist the American troops hunt Nazis. Her story does not end at the Phrix Rayon Factory, for at 51 years of age she returned to a liberated France and to work and writing. She was also a devoted mother, daughter and wife.

Agnès Humbert was an extraordinary woman. It has long been my quest in historical fiction to draw attention to forgotten pockets of history. Agnes Humbert’s English translator– Barbara Mellor–have captured with accuracy and visceral reality a type of reportage a female first-person experience of the Résistance and shined a spotlight on the forced labour factories used in WW2 that have long been overlooked in history.

In my heroine, Josephine, I wanted to capture some of that resilience and inspiration of wartime women. To honour the women who were forced to work in atrocious conditions, and whose stories have largely been forgotten.

GBC: Why did you choose to write this story with dual timelines and across multiple characters’ points of view?

KM: A.S. Byatt’s Possession is one of my favourite books. I love the way the mystery and love stories threaded and knotted their way through the plot. More recently, I’ve enjoyed Geraldine Brooks and Dominic Smith who are both masters of the multi-timeline genre.

I just find myself losing myself in dual timeframe books for hours on end. I thought, why not have a go at something I love to read?

GBC: What research was involved in the writing of The French Gift?

KM: I started with the memoir of Agnès Humbert —Résistance—(expertly translated into English by Barbara Mellor). That memoir in turn had a resources list that I used as a springboard. Agnès Humbert was: part of the Resistance, member of the subterfuge group Cercle Alain-Fournier, co-founded the clandestine newspaper Résistance, was tried, sentenced and imprisoned for espionage for five years at Cherche-Midi, de la Santé, Fresnes and Anrath prisons and endured forced labour at the Phrix Rayon Factory.

She allegedly recorded her thoughts in a book by Descartes: Discourse on Method and it has been suggested (though not confirmed) that she stored the names and material for 400 Resistance workers under her carpet in her Paris apartment. She was indeed arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo, and allegedly made friends with sympathetic guards and cellmates in both Cherche-Midi Prison and the Phrix Rayon Factory.

Unlike my heroine Josephine, Agnès Humbert was a key figure in the liberation, and stayed in Germany to assist the American troops hunt Nazis. Her story does not end at the Phrix Rayon Factory, for at 51 years of age she returned to a liberated France and to work and writing. She was also a devoted mother, daughter and wife.

Agnès Humbert was an extraordinary woman. It has long been my quest in historical fiction to draw attention to forgotten pockets of history. Agnes Humbert’s English translator– Barbara Mellor–have captured with accuracy and visceral reality a type of reportage a female first-person experience of the Résistance and shined a spotlight on the forced labour factories used in WW2 that have long been overlooked in history.

In my heroine, Josephine, I wanted to capture some of that resilience and inspiration of wartime women. To honour the women who were forced to work in atrocious conditions, and whose stories have largely been forgotten.

GBC: Your book covers differ (from region to region, as they often do), yet nearly all of them feature a woman on the cover, giving a distinct and cohesive feel to your work. How much say do you have in your book covers and do you feel they represent your novels as you’d like?

KM: Generally the marketing team have a clear idea of the cover after they’ve read the manuscript. They often come to me for ideas and inspiration, but more often than not they send through a few different concepts and together we choose. I’ve been lucky, all my covers to date have been so beautiful.

Like my novels, the covers all have a powerful sense of place. I love an evocative cover, they lure the reader to pick up my book!

GBC: How did you get into writing and what inspired you to write your first book?

KM: I worked in book publishing as an editor, then as a freelance journalist for years. For my fortieth birthday I gave myself an online creative writing course.

The tutors thought there was something in my early drafts—which were a handful of chapters at that stage. So I took a few months to finish that novel—and it went to auction in Australia and got published as The Midsummer Garden.

My first novel was inspired during a holiday to France (remember holidays? Travel?) I visited a crumbly chateau near Limoges and was struck by the walled garden. I instantly had an image of a medieval herbalist and healer—Artemisia—and a tragedy that took place within those walls.

I love to research and write forgotten corners of history that weave through to contemporary times. Writing is a long game. I spend at least a year lost in the story and characters. (Dare I use the word, obsessed?)

Before I started writing novels, I had a clear idea of what I wanted my voice to be. I wanted to be a cross between A.S. Byatt, Geraldine Brooks and Michael Robotham.

You won’t be surprised to learn that what came out on my page was very different! I had to write enough words to know what my voice was starting to sound like, then embrace my difference.

Hone your writing style, like you would your fashion style.

Sometimes when I’m struggling with writing, all the writing groups and noise online can make me feel quite like I’m never going to measure up. That I’ll never be a ‘good enough’ writer. But I’ve learned that the elated feeling of a finished manuscript beats unfinished dreams and perfection.

Sometimes you just need to give yourself a break from the advice, and find your own solutions to a problem.

There will be a few gems of sentences among all the pages of writing. Use those moments to inspire you to keep going.

Be kind to yourself.

GBC: When you start writing a new book, what is your goal? What do you aim to invoke in your readers?

KM: So in my heroine, Joséphine, I wanted to capture some of that resilience and inspiration of wartime women. To honour the women who were forced to work in atrocious conditions, and whose stories have largely been forgotten.

It is my contemporary character, Evie, who is left to unravel the mystery and history of the late Josephine Murant. In all my novels, I’m always questioning how the past informs the present. How trauma carries across generations. But also, hope.

For in the end, we humans are optimistic. Bravery, resilience and hope are all threads that bind us together and yoke us into the future.

For the moment, we cannot travel to France from Australia: but we can visit with our minds. To that end, I wanted to inject jewels of happiness and joy throughout The French Gift. I wanted the reader to imagine sitting on a gravelled terrace at the end of a day, rosé in hand, warm herbed bread or a fresh bouillabaisse front of mind. I want readers to feel the last moments of the soft Côte D’Azure sun on their face, back pressed against a warm pink stone wall as they gaze across a pool to the sapphire ocean beyond.

Wartime France has long been a setting for novels—the passion and resilience of the French form the backdrop for many a tale. My story of wartime France is different to other novels, as it is based on a first-person female account of a wartime experience. People are hungry for stories about women, by women. Women are marching in the street demanding their voices to be heard.

Only recently has the wartime experience of women been given any attention. Traditionally history has been recorded by men. Women were busy getting on helping their community, their families, their villages resettle and rebuild. Women have been the emotional ballast and secret strength to many a wartime effort and we need to recognise their efforts, not diminish them.

The French Gift takes the reader into some dark places of our recent history, but it also shows us the strength, resilience and joy to be had when women share stories, connect and support one another. Whether it be wartime France, contemporary Paris, Melbourne or Sydney, I’m indebted to the strong women who quietly set about making life better for those around them. These women are our true gift.

GBC: What does your writing process look like? Do you map each story out from start to finish or do you begin with an idea and see where it takes you?

KM: A bit of both. I always have a clear idea of my characters, I know who they are, what they wear, what they like to eat, their loves and heartbreaks. Then comes the two (or three) different timelines. Within those timelines I have some key points or dates I need to hit. Each plotline has to work alone, plus weave in with the other.

I’ve learnt after four novels that I tend to write the opening, then an ending and then I patchwork the two storylines together. I’m never quite sure of how it will turn out, but I plod away and somewhere in the writing some magic happens to join all the dots up. It’s a delightful surprise (and a hell of a relief!) when it all comes together in the end.

GBC: What makes a book great, in your opinion? What elements does a great story possess?

KM: Compelling characters and a curious plot. I also like the book to push and tug at my emotions, whether it is exploring darkness in a thriller, the eery place of a crime book, or the historical world. I always finish a good book with dog-eared pages as I love to study how other authors do things.

GBC: Having written and published several books, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about writing?

KM: To let go of perfection and just write. You can’t edit a blank page.

I’m not saying don’t strive for perfection—for beauty. Just don’t expect it to fall from your fingers. It takes a lot of work to get there.

I had a swimming coach who told me that discipline.

For me, the magic seems to happen in the rewriting, and that’s okay.

GBC: Any advice you can share with the aspiring writers within our community?

KM: Be prepared for rejection.

Be resilient. I’m yet to meet a writer that hasn’t been rejected at some point. It’s like a dirty secret bottom drawer that we keep. Just because a particular agent or publisher doesn’t like your story, doesn’t mean it’s rubbish! It just means it’s not for them at the moment.

Don’t quit at your first attempt. Having said that—if the rejections say the same thing—it might be worth paying heed. I’ve learnt as much from the rejections as I have from the love.

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