Q&A: Kirsty Manning, author of “The French Gift”

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The French gift is a WWII story of female friendship, longing and sacrifice through war and loss, bringing together the present and the past.

We chat with Kirsty Manning about her latest book release, as well as her writing, research, book recommendations and more!

Hi, Kirsty! Can you tell our readers a bit about yourself?

I live between Melbourne and a sleepy seaside village where I am renovating an old cabin alongside my family. My weeks are pretty busy in the city running with three teenagers and trying to write during the day. My husband, I am the co-owner of the Bellota Wine Bar and the Prince Wine Store.

I love good food and good wine, even better if someone cooks for me! In my spare time I like long walks with friends and swimming in the ocean.

Before writing, I was a book editor and then a freelance journalist. (Also, a pretty awful waitress.) I have degrees in literature and a masters in communication.

As the year draws to a close, how has 2021 been for you?

Strange! I live in Melbourne, Victoria and we have been confined for 265 days. I know!

As a writer, I can isolate myself socially like a boss, but with my husband and three teenage children all working from home for most of that time, I had to do things a little differently.

I loved (for the most part) this moment of closeness with my family and the time for reflection. It has been a year of review with ups and downs.

That said, 2022 cannot come soon enough …

When did you first discover your love for writing?

Primary school. My mom recently sent me the first cover story I wrote. I’ve always loved creative writing in school, but I didn’t study it and didn’t get into fiction as a career until I was forty.

Quick flash tour! Tell us about the first book you remember reading, the one that made you want to be an author and that you can’t stop thinking about!

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey. I read it in my senior year of high school and there is a scene of a glass structure floating on the river. I could smell the eucalyptus, the longing and the longing.

Your new novel, The French gift, is out now! If you could only describe it in five words, what would they be?

Lush, surprising, full of hope

What can readers expect?

Right now, women are crying out for our voices to be heard. For too long history has been written and recorded by men. War stories are generally told from the perspective of men. How many movies and books feature men: Gallipoli, Saving Private Ryan, Hello Vietnam etc

But here’s the thing: Women have always been strong. Women have always tied their arms and led their loved ones in better conditions, to safety, to the future.

In my heroine, Josephine, I wanted to capture some of that resilience and inspiration of women in times of war. To honor the women who have been forced to work in excruciating conditions, and whose stories have been largely forgotten.

Where does the inspiration for The French gift comes from?

I read a lot of non-fiction because I love to explore the forgotten pockets of history in my novels. A few years ago, a single paragraph from the excellent non-fiction book The Riviera set by Mary S. Lovell lit my imagination. Lovell described a decadent French Riviera party hosted by a famous hostess, where one of the guests is (fake) murdered and local police enlisted as part of the game.

What is funny, I was thinking! What if I wrote 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 WWII women who were forced to work in factories. We know so little about their history – women’s war stories – and I came across a translated version of a memoir by Agnes Humbert.

Can you tell us a bit about the challenges you encountered while writing and how you were able to overcome them?

It’s always a huge challenge to balance the nuances of a real person and real places with the needs of a fictional character to serve the story. I always work with historians and translators for authenticity. I have readers who check all sensitivity because I want to honor and celebrate the inspiration behind my novels.

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The other challenge in a double-timed book is to marry contemporary history with historical intrigue. It’s a bit like putting a puzzle together with no idea what shape it is supposed to have. Everything is linked at the end.

As a writer of historical fiction, can you tell us about your research approach? Especially for this novel?

I took copious notes throughout Resistance– (expertly translated into English by Barbara Mellor) to get into the mind of Agnès Humbert. To try to understand a woman who was part of the Resistance, a member of the subterfuge group Alain Fournier Circle, co-founder of the underground newspaper Resistance, was tried, convicted and imprisoned for espionage for five years in the prisons of Cherche-Midi, de la Santé, Fresnes and Anrath and underwent forced labor at the Phrix Rayon factory.

I like to read primary sources, but also government documents, prison records, court documents, etc. There is a list of some resources at the end of each book so people can follow the areas that interest them.

Unlike my heroine Joséphine, Agnès Humbert was a key figure in the liberation, and stayed in Germany to help American troops drive out the Nazis. Her story does not stop at the Phrix Rayon Factory, since at the age of 51 she returns to a liberated France, to work and to writing. She was also a devoted mother, daughter and wife.

Agnès Humbert was an extraordinary woman. My quest in historical fiction has long been to draw attention to forgotten pockets of history. Agnes Humbert’s English translator Barbara Mellor captured with precision and visceral reality a type of reporting on a female first-person experience of the Resistance and shed light on the forced labor factories used during WWII that have long been overlooked in history.

What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever received?

Worse, you should work out your ideas with a lot of people before you put pen to paper. Ideas by committee never work

Best: Keep writing. You cannot change anything.

What’s the next step for you?

A historical mystery series, set in Paris.

Finally, what were your favorite reads of 2021?

at Sarah Bailey The room mate, Jane harper The survivors

Will you pick up The French gift? Tell us in the comments below!


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