About the author:
Luke Devenish is an Australian writer of historical fiction, numerous plays, and several long running television dramas, such as Neighbours, Home and Away, Something in the Air, and SeaChange. His first two novels, Den of Wolves and Nest of Vipers, about the women behind the men of Ancient Rome, were translated into five languages, earning him a passionate international readership. A film and television academic at the University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts, Luke is as fervent about teaching as he is about writing, and is much enjoyed for his lively, inspiring classes. Luke lives with his partner and pets in a sprawling 1860s garden in historic Castlemaine, Central Victoria. Visit his website: LukeDevenish.com
The Heart of the Ritz is set in France in 1940 and about four women who join forces, with conviction, courage … and style. Can you tell us a bit more about the book?
At the story’s centre is sixteen-year-old Polly Hartford, an Australian girl, who, following the death of her father, is brought halfway around the world to the care of her only remaining relative, her Aunt Marjorie, a former opera star, who lives in France. Marjorie has long been a positive influence in Polly’s life, but it’s a relationship based entirely upon letters. Polly discovers that the Marjorie of reality is somewhat different from the Marjorie of correspondence – her aunt keeps dangerous secrets. France is amidst the ‘Phony War’ with Hitler’s Germany – the uneasy period before the conflict came to French soil – and Marjorie is involved in activities for the French Secret Service.
It is not too much of a spoiler to say that Marjorie comes to grief at the end of the first chapter, leaving Polly orphaned totally. It’s then that Marjorie’s three closest friends step in: Alexandrine, an elegant Comtesse; Lana Mae, a big-hearted American heiress; and Zita, a fabulous French film star. But there is more to these godsends than Polly is privy to, for just like Marjorie, they are adept at keeping secrets, the biggest of which concerns the truth about Marjorie’s death. But grieving Polly remains in the dark about this… for now.
The three witty, wealthy, independent women take Polly under their collective wing and bring her to their home in Paris, the famous Hôtel Ritz, where Polly is introduced to an extraordinary lifestyle of glamour and privilege. But it’s a lifestyle propped up by delusion. The colourful denizens of the Ritz believe themselves insulated from the worsening war by money and position – a delusion that is shattered when the Nazis finally invade Paris in June 1940, and France falls to the Third Reich.
In the wake of this catastrophe, Polly and her guardians find themselves living side by side with Hitler’s most notorious henchmen. The Ritz becomes a Nazi playground, and the four women must draw upon all their resources of cunning and courage to keep their heads above treacherous waters. But in the depth of the decadence comes hope: remade as a young lady of money and style, Polly is dismissed as a fashionable featherhead of little threat to the Nazi occupiers. This provides her with unique opportunity. Joining forces with Tommy, a handsome hotel waiter with dangerous secrets of his own, Polly’s love for her lost aunt inspires her to perform acts of resistance, tiny to begin with, but growing in daring and impact. But as the Occupation draws on and Paris deteriorates, those with something to hide find the burden of doing so grows heavier and heavier. And for some of those in the fabulous Hôtel Ritz, being in possession of a secret proves fatal…
What was the inspiration behind this novel?
For quite a while I had been feeling very troubled by the attacks against institutions of democracy happening in places where democracy had previously seemed indestructible – the United States and several European countries. Coupled with this was my very real sense of unfairness at the manner with which my generation treats the generation to which our children belong. Because of my day job teaching at the Victorian College of the Arts, I know more people in this younger age group than I do in any other. I am constantly inspired by young people and I hate how they are disregarded. They really do have it harder than we did, and yet it feels like we’re happy to be deaf about it. These two concerns were brewing in my mind and, perhaps subconsciously, I was looking for a way of expressing them in the form I most love writing: historical fiction. And I found it.
I always read a great deal, both fiction and non-fiction, and while in the middle of a non-fiction phase I picked up a wonderful book detailing the history of the Paris Ritz Hotel. The most revelatory chapters concerned the Ritz’s World War Two history, when for the four years of the Nazi Occupation, the famed hotel became a hotbed of Resistance activity, with staff and guests alike doing amazingly courageous things right under the noses of the Nazi occupiers – who were too busy partying and looting to properly realise. When I discovered this, I knew that I had the makings of novel about a time and place when democracy was under even worse threat than now and young people seemingly had no voice to protect it.
Can you tell us about your research process for this book?
Well, I’ve been lucky enough to visit Paris a number of times in my life, so my memory of and affection for the city’s monuments and boulevards is very strong and dear to my heart. I love Paris and its rich history. But my research process for this novel was the same as the three I’d written before it: books, books, and more books. I read a great deal about life in the city under the Nazi occupiers, and during the Allied Liberation, too. Plus, I read a lot about the Ritz of course. I also read about the lives of Paris women during this period, which is where I found so many of the real-life people and stories that directly inspired the characters and events in The Heart of the Ritz.
What do you hope the reader will take away from this book?
Paris during the Occupation was a city denuded of French men; so many of them had been killed in the fighting or were languishing in prisoner of war camps. The Resistance movement that mushroomed everywhere in the city, including at the Ritz, was started by people the Nazis initially overlooked: teenagers who came of age under collaborationist rule, and fighting alongside them, patriotic French women. I find this incredibly inspiring, and I hope readers of The Heart of the Ritz will, too, because that’s what the novel is about. Women and young people started the tide that climaxed with the Allied Liberation of Paris and the restoration of democracy in France. There’s such a valuable history lesson there to all those who would try to withhold power from people who know what democracy can and should be. It’s a lesson that is very right for our times, I think.
You’re a scriptwriter and playwright. How does this influence you while you’re working on a novel?
Well, my favourite thing to write is snappy, sparky dialogue, so there’s always plenty of that in my books. I’ll provide that in preference to writing lengthy descriptions any day. My characters like to have fun with what they say, and those in The Heart of the Ritz are no exception. Polly’s three guardians, Zita, Lana Mae, and Alexandrine, make weapons of their tongues and have lots of devastating lines. My publisher described them as a trio of Aunty Mames, and I think that captures them perfectly. They’re frequently funny. And at times, heartbreaking.
I treat my novels just like screenplays: deliberately fast moving and vivid in detail. I aim for a vividness that is punchy. I try to give each scene an immediacy so that the reader feels as if they are right there in the moment with the characters. I resist the urge to skirt over things or do surface sprints across stretches of time, however – the novel equivalent of the montage. It’s definitely easier to do the ‘skirting over’ style of writing and plenty of bestselling novelists practice it, but I don’t let myself. This is my screenwriter’s discipline. I stick by the rule of entering a scene as late as I can and then exiting as early as I can, which is a way of identifying what’s most important to the scene and then milking it. My style is one of ‘cut tos’, taking the reader from memorable moment to memorable moment, and in this way I can build steadily towards cliff-hangers, twists and pay-offs – which I love creating.
What’s your daily writing routine like and what are you working on at the moment?
I wish I could say I write every day, but a little thing called ‘life’ tends to get in the way. I have a day job, but because it’s teaching screenwriting to university students, I still get to deal with characters and stories every day, which is wonderful because it keeps my creative brain very well oiled. The Heart of the Ritz was written during a dedicated period when I had the luxury of taking extended time off.
I’m researching my next novel now, which means I’m reading books, of course. It’s still assembling itself, but I can tell you it’ll be set at the same time as The Heart of the Ritz, but across the Channel, in London. It won’t be a sequel, but a story in parallel. I’ve been joking to myself I’ll call it The Heart of the Blitz! I think my publishers might try to talk me out of that…
On your website you say you ‘write about people that history overlooks, be it because of their gender, their age, their class, or some other reason they have no control over’. I love this. Tell us more about being drawn to these stories and characters.
As a gay man, I grew up with a firsthand understanding of what it is to be marginalised. It was no one’s fault, societal attitudes existed then that are much diminished now, and in a way I’m grateful for having lived through less enlightened times. The legacy of it is my keen empathy with others who suffer marginalisation – which is the experience of being disregarded and overlooked by the wider world. I have such a fascination for history, but not for well-trodden stuff; I look for the stories behind the story. In doing so, it’s invariably obvious to me who the most marginalised people are in any given past period: women. This is why I’m so drawn to their stories, and most especially to those of women who triumph in spite of their marginalisation. But there are others to be found in this camp, too, so their stories also inspire me. My first two novels, Den of Wolves and Nest of Vipers, were set in Ancient Rome, and focused not only on women, but also children and slaves, who were just as disempowered. My third novel, The Secret Heiress, set in late Victorian times, had girls of the servant class at its heart. And now with my fourth novel, it’s women who were dismissed as ‘fashion plates’ – and gutsy teenagers, of course.