J.R. Lonie is otherwise known as John Lonie, a screenwriter, playwright and script editor whose credits include some of Australia’s top TV dramas and films. He was head of screenwriting at the Australian Film Television and Radio School for seven years, during which he also co-wrote the feature film Kokoda. He is one of the writers on the popular television series, A Place to Call Home. He is presently working on his next novel. He lives in Brisbane.
The Woman from Saint Germain is a story of two strangers from different worlds, brought together by war. Can you tell us a bit more about the book?
One world is a novelist’s life in glamorous interwar Paris at a time when American writers especially gravitated to the City of Light. What a fabulous life if you were sitting pretty on the top of the social pile with money in your pocket as Eleanor most certainly is, an independent woman, successful author, beautiful, intelligent, wealthy and happily the mistress of distinguished married man. Start removing the props from her comfortable life. War. The German invasion which brings personal tragedy. They occupy Paris, the city she loves. She’s stuck, in more ways than one and blind to what’s just around the corner. Soon she’s thrown into that other world that millions have been forced into either by circumstance – poverty and war – and by the Nazis, especially if you’re a Jew, a political opponent of the Nazis or a homosexual or a Roma. In this world without her comforts and certainties, Eleanor, whose next moment might be her last, encounters strangers among whom she finds not only evil but kindness and a love she, the great romantic novelist, has never known before. For Eleanor, her journey is a test of her faith in God and in herself.
What inspired the idea behind this story?
Let me talk about the ‘craft’ idea behind the story. I love road movies and this tale started off as a road movie in my mind and then in fact. Well, as a screenplay of sorts. What are the ingredients of a good road movie? A physical journey, the ‘road’, in this case Paris to the Spanish frontier. It’s best if the ‘road’ is dangerous, through the badlands, so to speak, in my case, Nazi-occupied France in late 1941. Without characters, it’s just a travelogue. Your characters have to be as far apart as possible, unlikely and preferably antagonistic. My characters started out in different worlds, my fascination with literary Paris between the wars, which gave me Eleanor. And then more personal, Henk’s situation under the Nazis.
The story is set against the backdrop of World War 2. How much research did you conduct when writing this novel to ensure you captured the essence of the era?
Lots, via online and in libraries and on the ground. If you are writing an historical novel, a novel set at a specific time and in a specific place, I believe you need to honour the history part of the equation. The real world of the story needs to be as accurate as you can make it. The closer one’s period is to the present, the more the details need to be right. You don’t have the leeway that a thousand or two thousand years provides, although now, with all the work being done by historians, even that distance is shrinking. I will have made mistakes, for sure, but I hope not too many.
The novel explores themes of war, love, and literature – why did you choose to write about these topics?
I think they chose me. I grew up in an army household in the shadow of World War Two, the struggle against the evils of Nazi Germany and militaristic Japan, which I think for my generation is ‘the’ story, in all its shades and variety. I grew up in a household of books and reading so literature and libraries and bookshops is in my blood. And love? It might be universal, but I certainly found it hard going for a long time partly because it was a hard time for my kind of love. But war is a time when the rules get broken easily; love is grabbed by people greedy for it because they’re facing uncertainty, this moment might be their last. The intensity of wartime love is matched only by how fleeting it can be.
What was your favourite book of 2018, and which book are you most looking forward to reading in 2019?
In 2018, I was very impressed by Robert Harris’s Munich not only because he so deftly inserts a fictional story into real events without damage to those events, but also because this fictional story created a new angle – for me, that is – on Mr. Chamberlain’s infamous ‘piece of paper’ which I’d not considered or encountered before; so that Chamberlain, Mister Appeasement, was cleverer than history has allowed. For 2019, Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the third in her Wolf Hall trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. It’s curious, isn’t it? We know how he ended up but can’t wait for her to show us how he got there.