Q&A: Christine Wells, author of “One Woman’s War”
From the author of Resistance Sisters comes the story of Victoire Bennett, British WWII naval intelligence officer, the real-life inspiration for the James Bond character Miss Moneypenny, whose international covert operation is put in jeopardy when an unstable socialite and Austrian double agent threatens to expose the mission to the German high command.
We chat with author Christine Wells about One Woman’s Warplus writing, book recommendations and more!
Hi Christine! Can you tell our readers a bit about yourself?
Good morning! Thank you for hosting me. I write historical fiction and live in Brisbane, Australia, a short plane flight north of Sydney.
When did you discover your love for writing?
As soon as I knew how to write, I loved making up stories, but I got very frustrated when my imagination exceeded my ability to print. The first creation I remember was a book I wrote and illustrated for my sixth grade teacher’s new baby. However, it wasn’t until I worked as a lawyer in my twenties that I challenged myself to write a full novel.
Quick Lightning Ride! Tell us about the first book you remember reading, the one that made you want to become an author and the one you can’t stop thinking about!
The first books I remember reading were Berenstain’s Bears. A book that made me want to become an author Anne of Green Gables. A book that I never managed to get out of my head is The kite runner by Khaled Hosseini. It had a profound effect on me.
your new novel, One Woman’s War, is out now! If you could only describe it in five words, what would they be?
Meet the real Miss Moneypenny. (Or if you want superlatives: captivating, intriguing, quirky, witty, glamorous.)
What can readers expect?
One Woman’s War is the story of the real woman who is generally considered the inspiration behind the James Bond character of Miss Moneypenny. During World War II in Britain, Victoire “Paddy” Bennett worked in the Directorate of Naval Intelligence for Ian Fleming before participating in one of the most eccentric and effective deceptions of war of all time: the Mincemeat operation.
Where does the inspiration come from? One Woman’s War comes from?
I’m a little obsessed with spies and had read biographies of Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels. Fleming himself worked for Britain’s Royal Navy intelligence service during World War II and it was there that he found inspiration for James Bond. Some of the less likely plots in these novels were based on real events, such as when Bond emerges from the Mediterranean in a scuba gear, strips down to reveal a dinner suit, and then goes to a Thunderball casino, which is actually happened during WWII! As I continued my research, I came across a newspaper article about the women in Fleming’s life – most of them strong, witty and intelligent – quite different from the stereotype of the “Bond girl” whose he talked.
A number of different women have been presented as inspiration for Miss Moneypenny and the truth is of course probably more than one woman inspired this character but because Fleming took so much knowledge of Bond from his time in Naval Intelligence, where Paddy worked for him, as a secretary, she seemed to fit the bill better. And Paddy was such a smart, outspoken, strong woman in her own right with such an interesting story, I couldn’t help but write about her.
Can you tell us a bit about the challenges you faced while writing and how you managed to overcome them?
History has largely ignored women like Paddy Bennett – she was not even mentioned in most Operation Mincemeat publications – so there was little information about her role at the Admiralty and the only statements about what she had done for Operation Mincemeat seemed to come from newspaper articles and obituaries.
Another challenge was designing an external conflict for Paddy. After the London team set up Operation Mincemeat on their end, all they could do was wait and see if it worked. All “opposition” to their plan occurs in Spain and Germany. So I introduced an antagonist who could be present in London when Operation Mincemeat was taking place and travel to Lisbon and Berlin to be there to see how the German high command reacted to the deception. I had to use my imagination for this story thread – enter Austrian double agent Friedl Gärtner throwing a spanner in the works. Friedl was a real person but I fictitious his involvement in Mincemeat.
Are there any favorite moments or characters that you really enjoyed writing or exploring?
I like Paddy’s straightforwardness and efficiency (perhaps because I lack those areas a bit myself). She’s really a “take charge” type and I enjoyed writing the scenes where she does just that. Friedl was a glamorous and fun-to-write socialite because she had such a temperamental personality. There is a scene where she comes home in a very daring party dress at night and is arrested by the police with the local prostitutes and spends the night in a jail cell. This has happened to him on more than one occasion!
Can you tell us a bit about your research process? Was there any interesting information you discovered?
There were so many interesting bits of James Bond trivia that emerged from my research. The origins of the codename “M”, for example, and real-life Bond figure Duško Popov and his “Casino Royale” bet with MI-6 money. More poignantly, I learned of the tragic death of one of Ian Fleming’s girlfriends, which probably informed the scenes where he writes about the death of Tracy Draco, James Bond’s wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
I was able to read Friedl Gärtner’s MI-5 file, which is in the British National Archives. It was pure research gold. And a very special part of the research for this book took place when a fellow author and friend, AM Stuart, told me that his uncle, Pen Slade, had worked with Fleming at the Directorate of Naval Intelligence (Room 39 of Admiralty). She sent me a memoir full of excerpts from Pen’s letters at the time and his amusing cartoons and poems about Room 39.
What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever received?
The worst wasn’t advice as such, but I belonged to a review group early in my life as a writer that got me so anxious about some writing ‘rules’ not to infringe that it hampered my creativity for a while. These days, I advise the writers I mentor to be very careful about choosing partners and review groups.
The best writing advice I’ve ever received is to focus on writing as your number one priority. Ultimately, editing is a fickle business and all that’s in your control are the words that go onto the page. And of course, only by writing can you improve your art.
What’s next for you?
My next book is about an orphan growing up in the luxurious Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo. When she sets out to find her parents in England and Paris as an adult, she is told that she is the illegitimate daughter of Edward VIII (who later abdicated the British throne and became the Duke of Windsor) and an infamous French courtesan called Princess Marguerite Fahmy. .
Finally, what were your favorite books to read this year? Are there any upcoming releases you can’t wait to read in 2023?
I have so many favorites, but I’ll choose two: the first is Mick Herron’s latest book in the Slow Horses series, bad actors. I think he’s a terrific writer and his cast of MI-5 misfits is so dysfunctional and delightful. Another powerful book that I loved was by Kate Quinn The diamond eye about a Russian WWII sniper who befriends Eleanor Roosevelt.
In 2023 I look forward to Stephanie Marie Thornton’s His lost wordsabout feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.