By Alexandra Joel
Time to come clean: I’m a thief. Probably a cheat. Maybe a liar, too. Just like every novelist, I steal from friends and family – even perfect strangers are not safe. That’s where stories come from; it might be a line in a newspaper, a conversation overheard on the bus or perhaps an intriguing exchange caught on the car radio just before I pull up at the supermarket or the beach.
I have come to realise there are few lengths to which we fiction writers will not go. Having apprehended a snippet from someone else’s life, we then set about inventing and embellishing, twisting words and melding scenarios until in the end it is impossible to recall how the whole thing started.
When it comes to my new book, The Paris Model, however, no doubts about its origins exist. After my last book, Rosetta: A Scandalous True Story came out (a memoir about my great-grandmother who left behind a husband and small child to run away with a half-Chinese fortune teller called Zeno the Magnificent), I began to receive emails, letters and messages from around the country. It seemed that there were vast numbers of people eager to confess their own family secrets, as if my act of revelation had given them permission to share what had been previously unmentionable.
Friends, some I’d known for years, confessed all manner of astonishing tales about their grandparents, parents, sisters and brothers that I’d never heard before. I was, therefore, not entirely surprised when, while sipping tea in the fragrant garden of dear ‘S’, she said, ‘Let me tell you about my mother.’
‘S’ proceeded to relate the extraordinary story of Grace Woods. As soon as I learnt about the mystery surrounding her birth, the tragedies that engulfed her parents and the unlikely coincidence that provided this strikingly beautiful, green-eyed girl with an entirely new identity, I was captivated.
‘Would you let me write Grace’s story?’ I immediately asked, only what I was really saying was, ‘Can I steal her away, take her on new adventures in glamorous 1940s Paris, make her a Dior mannequin, force her into perilous situations, watch on as she experiences joy and suffering, as she falls hopelessly in love?’ The process I had in mind amounted to much more than simply writing Grace’s story: I intended to make her mine.
When I’d finished the first draft of The Paris Model I sent it to my friend. Then began a nervous wait. I worried I might have caused offence, taken too many outrageous liberties, that she’d be distressed. When, finally, I saw her name appear on my phone I felt a ghastly pang of apprehension. ‘Um, what did you think?’ I stammered.
There was a moment’s silence. Then she said, ‘I love it – and Gracie would have too. You’ve given her the life she would have adored to live.’
It was a remarkably generous response, to a thief.