Author Interview: Pamela Binning Ewen
Welcome to another great author interview on The Books Delight. Today we are talking with Pamela Binning Ewen whose recently released a book about Coco Chanel and her life during WWII.
JMR- Hi Pamela, welcome to The Books Delight, tell us about yourself, who are you, where do you live? What do you do for fun? What does your perfect day look like?
PE- I live in Mandeville, Louisiana, just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, which is about twenty minutes away. This is called the Northshore, and it’s composed of several small towns, each fairly old. This area is rich in history, music, art, literature, and of course—great food!
I’m a mother, a wife, a former corporate lawyer, and a writer. But writing is my second career. First, I practiced law with a large firm in Houston, Texas for twenty-five years before returning to the New Orleans area. I loved practicing law, but after I wrote my first book, it did well and I found I wanted to write more. So many stories in my head! We worked long hours in the firm, so I made a choice and changed careers. The Queen of Paris is my seventh book, my sixth novel, and I’ve loved every minute writing and the work involved. I just get lost in my stories and characters--carry them around in my head for years, even long before I’ve begun the writing.
My two favorite things to do in a day are read and write. And that’s my idea of fun! So my perfect day can go in one or two directions. First, if a story is working, holding together and I’m loving it and the writing just flows and flows---that is a perfect day.
And second, on a sunny day, I love to sit outside at my favorite coffee shop and read. The coffee shop is a small wooden cottage with a porch, located in Madisonville, about ten minutes from my house. It’s a small, beautiful, and historic town set right on the banks of the Tchefuncte River which winds its way also past Mandeville and on to the lake. Old oak trees dripping with moss provide shade. It’s so peaceful and beautiful and if I get lost in a good book I could sit there for hours.
JMR- You were a lawyer for many years, did you always know you wanted to write? How did a profession in law shape you as a writer? I imagine writing legal briefs is vastly different then penning fiction?
PE- When I was a child we had lots and lots of books, and I read all the time. Beginning with fairy tales, then the Wizard of Oz books (many people don’t realize there are many of those in the set), books on history written for children, through Nancy Drew and on and on through the classics and great literature and also just fun books. I taught myself to type at an early age and wrote stories and poems all the time. So I’m fairly certain my love of reading helped form my passion for writing as I grew older. And in fact I believe it’s almost impossible to write fiction unless you also love to read.
Legal writing taught me how to communicate ideas clearly, and I hope, objectively for the most part. I was a corporate lawyer. Our work involved negotiating and drafting long agreements, sometimes hundreds of pages long. Clients expected clarity and precision in the documents, and sometimes these agreements were as intricate as working through puzzles. I know this might sound weird, but that, to me, was fun! At any rate it taught me patience and how to find answers to questions through in-depth research, great tools for writing!
But the similarities stop there. Because in law you must stick to the facts. In writing fiction you’re free to create, to take wing and fly, and create real characters who have emotions and worries and problems just like us.
JMR- You have written both a fiction and nonfiction book with religious themes. How has your personal faith shaped you as a writer?
PE- My faith is the result of a hard fought battle! I was raised in Christian faith. But in my early twenties I came across writers, like Ayn Rand, who questioned everything I’d been taught and read with powerful arguments. This shook the foundations of my faith. When I asked our pastor how we know the stories in the Bible are true—particularly the New Testament, his answer was: “We don’t. You just have to have faith.”
I needed more than that, and for the next twenty or so years I was an agnostic. I wanted to believe, but just couldn’t get there. Here’s the lawyer coming out in me, I suppose—because I needed evidence to sift through, permitting me to come to rational conclusions. As many readers will recognize, that is almost the opposite of having faith.
To make a long story short, one day I came across an idea first proposed by Simon Greenleaf, a lawyer at Harvard Law School who lived from 1792-1853. He suggested that if you treat the Apostles of the New Testament as witnesses on trial, you’d find evidence providing a powerful case, a foundation for faith.
My first published book was Faith on Trial, in which I followed Greenleaf’s suggestion. I put Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the Apostles, on trial. The research took over ten years because I was working long hours at the firm. In the end, Greenleaf was right—evidence available today in the form of contemporaneous writings about Jesus, archeology, medical evidence, science and other information, all looked at together, build a very powerful case for the truth of the New Testament—a foundation for faith, in my case. This changed my life in so many ways. Researching and writing Faith on Trial not only gave me the gift of faith, but it caused me to realize that I had new ideas to ponder and work through, and stories to tell. I wanted to write books.
JMR- What is it about Louisiana that produces so many writers? Something in the water? A deep connection to the past?
PE- Ha! That’s a good question, I’ve often asked it myself. Maybe something in the spicy food? Or maybe it’s the heat? In the case of my family (Burke, which is huge, by the way) we once had five people with books being released at about the same time! Louisiana lore is just infused into our family. The most easily recognized ‘Burke’ authors are James Lee Burke, Andre Dubus II, and Andre Dubus, III. And there are many more writers in the family, like Alafair Burke, me, Elizabeth Nell Dubus, Porteous Burke, just to name a few. This does seem to me to be an interesting and strange coincidence. You’ve asked whether the different cousins have influenced each other, and I would have to say no to that. Each of these cousins write in a different genre, with individual ideas and styles.
JMR- Several of your first books were set in the 1970s. Moon in the Mango Tree and the Queen of Paris are historical fiction. Why the switch? Which do you prefer to write, contemporary or historical fiction?
PE- Actually, stories come to me already set in time—I don’t choose the time. Perhaps that’s because the period the story arrives in is so important. With the exception of one trilogy, my books are all stand-alone, which probably isn’t the greatest thing for marketing. Once I was having lunch with my editor at a publishing house, just after writing Walk Back the Cat (aka Secret of the Shroud in a 2nd edition). This was a contemporary novel with time shifting to the past. He asked “What comes next?” I handed him a full, finished manuscript of The Moon in the Mango Tree, which I’d been working on for several years. He looked at this novel and realized that it was completely different from my first two books—threw up his hands and fussed that writers can’t just throw a manuscript over the transom!
I had to laugh, and then attempted to cooperate, writing the trilogy of Dancing on Glass, Chasing the Wind, and An Accidental Life. These are stories of two young women lawyers in New Orleans in the 1970’s struggling to balance home and careers at a time when most competition in law firms were men. I prefer writing historical fiction, and actually, I think of those three books as historical fiction, since they’re set forty years ago. Also, the changes in our world between then and now are so significant it might as well be one hundred years!
JMR- The Queen of Paris is about Coco Channel during WWII. Why did you choose to write about her? She doesn’t come across as a very sympathetic figure, she’s been called a traitor by some. After finishing the book, would you say you like or admire her? Does she get a bad rap in today’s press? If you could ask Coco one question, what would it be?
PE-Several years ago I came across a non-fiction book titled “Sleeping With the Enemy”, by Hal Vaughan (Random House). The book was devastating in its portrayal of Chanel. In fact, actual photographs of Chanel’s recruitment as a spy into the Abwehr, German Military Intelligence were included in the book—her agent number, a code name, “Westminster”. I’ve read several biographies of Chanel over the years, but none dealt with her behavior during WWI other than to suggest that she was possibly a Nazi collaborator. Until reading Vaughn’s book, my image of Chanel had been of a difficult, but strong independent woman, pretty and French, who designed beautiful clothes and created her signature perfume, No. 5. Sleeping with the Enemy flipped this idea upside-down.
As shown by Vaughn’s book, Chanel was much more than a collaborator. She was anti-semetic. She was recruited by the Nazis as a spy and went on missions for them. During the four years the Nazis occupied Paris, she lived alongside the High Command in the Paris Hotel Ritz. She went on missions for Germany, controlled by Walter Schellenberg, a high-ranking SS officer. She visited him in Berlin during the War.
My question was, why? Why would the most famous, most successful, the richest woman in the world agree to work with Nazi Germany during the War. The missions she accepted appeared to constitute treason. And she seemed so distant from the misery the rest of France endured. That’s why I wrote The Queen of Paris. So far as I know, this is the first in-depth historical fiction written on Chanel during the war years. For clarity, in an Author’s Note in the back of the book I’ve informed readers of what is fact and what is fiction in the story. But even the fiction portions are based on what I’d call reasonable circumstantial evidence.
You are right that she doesn’t come across as a very sympathetic figure. This was my biggest challenge in writing this book. As you probably know, the meme in writing fiction is that the main character must be, if not likeable, at least sympathetic. But my object was to show the circumstances from Coco’s point of view. That is one reason I used (mostly brief) pertinent flashbacks to her earlier life as a segue into many chapters. But as to judgment, I left that to each reader to decide.
JMR- What is your next project?
PE- I’m working on a book in which the main characters are two taken from The Queen of Paris. It’s set during WWII also and I’m having a great time with the story! Originally it was a subplot in The Queen of Paris, but Coco had enough on her hands without the author complicating things even more!
JMR- Who is your favorite author, and why? Have they impacted your writing?
PE- This is a really difficult question because I love various authors for very different reasons. But I did teach myself how to write by reading the classics to see how the writers handled different situations. For example, I learned much about writing dialogue from reading F. Scott Fitzgerald. Description, Virginia Woolf. Point of view, Tolstoy. But I do think my favorite writer during that period was Edith Wharton. Especially her book, The House of Mirth. I think every young woman today should read that book to understand the problems women had to overcome every day.
As for contemporary fiction, I have so many favorites it’s difficult to choose. I have recently found several WWII historical fiction writers that I’d not read before, however, and highly recommend them—Jane Thynne (The Claira Vine series), and Susan Elisa MacNeal (the Maggie Hope series). Both great stories and in-depth research. Other favorite writers are Pat Conroy (Prince of Tides, Beach Music), Charles Balfoure (The Paris Architect), Phillipa Gregory (anything she writes!)
JMR- What question were you hoping I’d ask but didn’t?
PE- Your questions were great and I enjoyed them. I can’t think of another unasked question, Jeanie! But I do answer web site emails, so if either you or readers have any more, just give me a shout!
JMR- How can readers find and follow you on social media and the web?
My website is www.pamelaewen.com and viewers can contact me through the site, as well as sign up for my monthly newsletter. Readers can also contact me through my other social media:
Readers, I hope you enjoyed this amazing interview with Pamela. Don't miss a single interview or review on The Books Delight!