Monday 26 June 2017

THE LOST GIRL, by Carol Drinkwater

In just a few days time, my new novel THE LOST GIRL will be published.

I have already written on my HG blogs that the story is set in two time zones: post WWII in France and 2015 Paris and includes a few flashbacks to London in the 90s.

The Paris 2015 sections take place during the long weekend of the atrocious terrorist attacks of the night of 13th November 2015. Six locations were targeted. During that evening one hundred and thirty diners and concert-goers were murdered and another 368 injured.

How to research such an event? Last month I mentioned that I watched on national television the live progression of the attacks as they unfolded and as they were reported. It was almost unbearable viewing, exceedingly moving and distressing. I was in shock and crying. This is all very well but it needs precision to fuel a story. I am very fortunate to be a member of the BnF, the Bibliothèque National de France, in the thirteenth arrondissement of Paris. The National Library of France is a very impressive institution. If you are at all interested in the value of libraries and their functionality do take a look at their website.

The four buildings in the photograph make up the Bibliotèque national de France François Mitterrand. The bridge that crosses over to them is the Simone de Beauvoir passerelle.

In amongst all their facilities and events on offer, the BnF has a truly impressive mediathèque where members can watch filmed material and entire reels of news footage and much more. I took myself off to the audiovisual department where I ordered reams of footage of the weekend of 13th November and I spent approximately a month enclosed within the silence of their walls, watching over and over and over material from everywhere, shot at every moment. It included news items, special investigative programmes, sometimes Smartphone footage, speeches made by François Hollande, our President during that period.
During my research at the library, taking notes obviously, I began to create the timeline for the weekend. My fictional timeline began an hour or two in advance of the first terrorist incident at 20.16 pm on Friday 13th November 2015. 

Firstly, I began with facts, with real events. At which minute was President Hollande - who was in the audience for a football match at the State de France, which was one of the targeted locations - at which moment did Hollande learn of the first of the events? At which moment did play stop? When did Hollande hurriedly leave the stadium? How much later were the thousands in the audience allowed to leave the stadium and make their way to their homes? When did they all begin singing our national anthem,  La Marsellaise? A song of revolution, of victorious spirit and determination. Those voices of thousands resonated across parts of eastern Paris to other areas where attacks were underway. The singing was televised. The nation was there, singing in their homes, rallying to the call.

These timings were essential. The emotional journeys of my characters were being influenced by the progression of events.

When did RAID eventually gain access into the Bataclan concert hall where 1500 concert-goers were being held hostage, many already murdered?
Who are RAID, the special police unit tasked with leading the French police in times of terrorism and other forms of serious crime?

History and fiction. 
My fictional characters were being brought into play during that month of research. A mother, Kurtiz, is praying for a sighting of her daughter, Lizzie, praying for a reconciliation with a the girl who disappeared from home and went missing four years previously. The daughter is attending the concert at the Bataclan. Or is she? Certainly, her father, Oliver, believes Lizzie is there and, carrying that hope in his broken heart, he too has purchased a ticket for the rock concert.
How could these two grieving parents ever have imagined that this night of what they prayed would be reconciliation would turn into one of bloodshed?

It became a business of weaving. Bringing together the reality and the fictional lives woven through the timeline. At which stage did Kurtiz visit one of the Paris hospitals? As she enters the hospital, in the novel, she sees the queues and queues of Parisians waiting to give blood, to do their bit to re-establish harmony within their damaged city. Hundreds of people standing in line on a freezing November night to help save the lives of others. These details make the difference. They begin to paint the picture of a city under attack. The responses of the individuals inhabiting the city.

I remember when I was travelling for my two Mediterranean Olive Route books (The Olive Route and The Olive Tree), I spent a fair amount of time in war zones, in regions under attack or where lives were being constrained by others. The West Bank, Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Al-Qaeda bombings in Algeria ... the most poignant memories for me were those of human kindness, the strength and indomitability of individuals. While watching all the footage of that weekend in Paris and its aftermath, interviews with music-lovers who had attended the concert and survived, others who had not attended but had lost a loved one ... etc. I was profoundly moved by the generosity of the human spirit. Not the hatred. I wanted my novel, THE LOST GIRL, to portray that. A tale of man's humanity to man. Not the opposite. In this case, the story of two women sharing their hearts with one another.

After the recent UK Manchester attacks, Facebookers were writing comments such as "this is like London during the Blitz, "Britain's stalwart spirit". True, yes, but in my experience this deep seam of humanity is not exclusive to Britain. I have witnessed it displayed all across the globe. The Parisian footage I watched over that month at the BnF confirmed that. #portesouvertes. Hashtag portes ouvertes. Open doors. If I had not engaged in such detailed research I might not have found the thousands of messages written by citizens. Open Doors. Our doors are open. 'Stay the night, we have beds.' 'We can drive you somewhere when the streets have reopened'. All public transport had been shut down. Roads were gridlocked. These tiny researched details - not always so tiny - contribute to the layers and complexities of a story. I am certain that every other History Girl will confirm this.

The sections of the book set during London in the 90s and early 2000s were the easiest for me to write because I was able to pick from my own experience. Years attending drama school (Kurtiz, my protagonist, trained as an actress before eventually turning her talents to photography, specialising in war photography). I had great fun and many nostalgic moments playing music I had listened to back in the 90s, looking through magazines to hit the right fashion notes. I was recalling a London, a city that had for a while been my home.

                                                    A street in Grasse, Provence, Alpes-Maritimes.

                                                          An old perfume factory in Grasse

The sections set after WWII involved a different kind of research. Masses of reading, watching old films, learning about the perfume industry in Grasse, the Perfume Capital of the World. Studying the mechanics of flower production when the flowers are destined for the perfume factories. The requirements, the demands involved. These sections of the novel, set in the south of France also take place at the Victorine Film Studios in Nice, which I have written about in an earlier blog on this site. The part that came for free for me was the scents and perfumes of Provence. The colours, the feeling of the heat on the baked earth. I have lived here - just ten miles from Grasse and overlooking the Bay of Cannes with its annual film festival - that I know the seasons well. They are imbedded within my own rhythms of life. I wake to the scents of jasmine and the May rose which is a vital ingredients for Chanel in its iconic Chanel No 5 perfume.
Provence of the late 1940s and the early 1950s is not so different to my Provence of today, not when I am writing about the cycles of nature.  The perfume of a rose is always the perfume of a rose.

So, two female protagonists - one in her early forties arriving from London, the other in her eighties who had spent her youth living near Grasse after the Second World War. A chance encounter in a bar brings them together over one harrowing weekend in Paris in 2015. Their stories become intertwined and criss-cross decades. The women, strangers and then friends, offer a new optimism to one another and undreamed-of futures. Their encounter brings, I hope, that golden seam of generosity, of humanity, that sits at the core of each and every one of us.

THE LOST GIRL, published 29th June. I really hope you will enjoy it.


Miranda Miller said...

This is so interesting, Carol. I will certainly read your novel.

Carol Drinkwater said...

Thank you, Miranda.

AnnP said...

Really looking forward to reading this. Do you know when the paperback will be published?

Carol Drinkwater said...

8th March 2018, I believe, AnnP

AnnP said...

Thanks, Carol. That would be a long time to wait! It will have to be the Kindle one I think.