I am so pleased to feature historical fiction author, Pamela Binnings Ewen today. By following Pamela on Instagram, I heard about her new book, The Queen of Paris, released in early April of this year. It sounded so good. Months ago, I requested an interview with her and an advanced copy to read and review. She accepted, and at her request, her publishing company, Black Stone publishing, sent me a copy of The Queen of Paris, a novel about Coco Chanel.
When did creative writing become a part of your life?
Books and reading have been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. As a child, stories and characters came alive to me. In the fifth grade I taught myself to type and made my first attempt at writing a story, which was a complete rip-off on Little Women. Over the years I continued writing for myself, mostly poetry and short stories. Writing seems to run in my family. My family, the Burke family, originally from New Iberia, Louisiana, has a lot of prolific writers, which I think is an interesting fact. The best known are cousins James Lee Burke (The Robicheaux series among others), Andre DuBus III (most famously, The House of Sand and Fog), and his father Andre Dubus III (most famously, The Bedroom).
The urge to write something serious to be read by others arose about twenty-five years ago, when I began working on my only non-fiction book, Faith on Trial. The basic research took many years though, because I was still practicing law at the time. When it was published, Faith on Trial received quite a bit of national press. I think for one thing, the idea of using a trial format to examine real evidence as you would in a courtroom, intrigued some people—especially those who wanted to believe but just couldn’t get there. Many readers told me that Faith on Trial had changed their lives—as it did mine. While writing this book, I realized that I love writing about ideas. But I also found that writing fiction is more fun, and that the most enjoyable way to explore interesting issues is through fiction. Since then I’ve also realized that sometimes fiction exposes clearer truth than facts.
What writers have inspired you in your writing journey?
It’s difficult to limit my favorites to a list! I read all the time, including not only for fun but also in my research. And I learned the craft of writing fiction from reading great books—classics and contemporary. In the classics, I especially like Edith Warton, Eudora Welty, Henry James, Virginia Wolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, E.M Forester, Somerset Mauham, P.C Wodehouse. If you’re familiar with these writers you may notice a common theme–women’s issues (with the exception of P.C. Wodehouse who, to me, is just plain funny). These older books have a subtle touch as they illuminate womens’ early struggles to survive in a man’s world. The evolution of women’s power and freedom from that day to ours is also fascinating, and often a focus of my own books.
As to contemporary writers, I love Pat Conrad (his writing is musical), Phillipa Gregory’s historical novels, Amor Towles, Paula McLain, and so many others that they’re impossible to list. Also, I love poetry, especially Edna St. Vincent Millay, Billy Collins, Rumi, Blake, Shelly. Poetry expands our thoughts to new ideas, new ways of looking at this world. When I’m tired or frustrated in writing, I try to relax and read poetry. For me it often brings up new ideas and possibilities that I’d not thought of before.
What is your favorite work of fiction?
Oh boy – this one’s hard. Ok. I think maybe Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth. Her writing is clean and entertaining, while at the same time dealing with serious issues. Wharton gives us a single woman living at home at the turn of the last century, a spinster, struggling with the reality of an unknown future as she grows older without the support of any man—father, husband, brother, patron, and before women saw the light of other opportunities beckoning ahead.
As to contemporary books I love almost anything written by Philippa Gregory, I also love A.J. Finn’s ‘Clara Vine’ Series, (amazing research), Jody Picooult, Beatrous Williams, Fiona Davis, and a new author I’ve just discovered, Liza Nash Taylor. There are too many others to name!
Why did you choose to write about Coco Chanel?
Chanel has always been an iconic figure. I’d always pictured her as a typical fresh young French woman, and a glamorous and sophisticated business woman in her older years—glittering, ambitious, and strong. But about six or seven years ago I came across a non-fiction book written by Hal Vaughn, Sleeping with the Enemy (Random House). Vaughn’s research on Chanel was in-depth, including photographs of recently released WWII military files which flipped her entire image upside down in my mind. After several years of research, reading every biography and non-fiction book about Chanel that I could find, it appeared to me that that no one had ever written the real story of her years during the Nazi occupation of Paris during the war, The facts as related by Vaughn were shocking. But after initial research, I realized that cold facts did not go far enough. I wanted to know ‘why’ Coco Chanel had chosen the path she took during that time. Answering that question became my lode-star while writing The Queen of Paris.
What was the biggest obstacle in writing Coco’s story, and the biggest blessing?
The biggest obstacle was that, at least on the surface, Coco was not a likeable character. Chanel is and was at that time an iconic figure, but with a difficult personality. I think that most readers prefer the main character to be someone they can root for. But on the other hand, complex characters are also interesting. My goal when I began writing the book was to explore the reasons why she acted as she did, not in order to judge or excuse, but rather, to show the evolution of the thoughts beneath her actions. And those reasons turned out to be fascinating! My hope is that readers will gain some insight into Chanel’s strange behavior during those years as each short flash into her past pairs with the present in the story, like light cutting through darkness.
How does her story inspire you?
I don’t know if I would use the word ‘inspire’. I really wanted to just tell the story of these four years of her life, and in the process find out why she made the decisions she made. Coco Chanel’s life story was already well known, except for these four years. She was a complicated, extremely talented woman. Writing in the shadows as you must in historical fiction, I wanted to find out how her past formed her life, and informed her decisions. My goal was to show what she was thinking during those terrible years, without judging or excusing her behavior from the outside looking in. So that in the end, readers could come to their own conclusions and judgments.
What have you learned from your characters?
My characters are almost always a person or idea or fact that catches my interest and intrigues me. Sometimes I think of them for years before deciding to write the story, as in the case of Chanel. In the process of creating characters, I find they generally evolve in an unpredictable fashion. I think that’s because often we are forced to make unexpected decisions in life, and our reactions to each problem and consequence form our personalities and our choices as we grow and learn—or don’t. I have learned that to be real, characters in a story must do the same and that makes the character and plot more interesting. I don’t like to solve problems in my stories with coincidence.
None of us can predict even what will happen in the next day of our lives. I think finally I have absorbed this truth, and I to try to enjoy each day as it comes. I did not write The Queen of Paris with a conclusion in mind. Instead I followed the facts, and sometimes wrote in the shadows when there was enough circumstantial evidence to justify that. (Sorry, I’m sounding like a lawyer, I know). And, hopefully readers will come to their own conclusions. But I do think the book highlights the need for each of us to stay alert to the possible consequences we create when we make choices, not only to ourselves but in the world around us. We don’t exist in isolation—we must force ourselves to look at things we would rather not see. And to act to make things better when we can.
What brings you the most joy as a writer?
Writing takes me to another place. I escape into the world I’m creating or researching. Also, I love exploring ideas. I love the research, and when that’s done the expansion of that information into new thoughts. Exploring the issues raised by ideas sparked by facts and then watching this grow into a plot and characters is fun.
Are you working on another novel?
Yes, it’s tentatively titled The Girl from Provence. The main characters are two minor characters in The Queen of Paris. It’s also set during WWII.
The Queen of Paris by Pamela Binnings Ewen tells a story as classy as Coco Chanel herself. In this richly layered novel, Ewen portrays Coco in her early life as a very young woman, before she was famous and in the years after and surrounding WWII.
This iconic woman desired to be loved, like anyone. Her complicated love life brings about an even more complicated situation. Coco seems to be forever chasing true love, both romantic and paternal.
A determined woman, Coco fights for her name and company and makes decisions which hover in the gray area of life. During the war, some think her a traitor and collaborator with the enemy, but at the core of Chanel burns the desire to keep what’s hers.
Ewen’s in-depth research fuels this glittering tale of glamorous fashion and perfume icon, Coco Chanel. Well-done!
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ for characters and story – I loved the imperfect, complicated character of Coco. The rich descriptions Ewen paints placed me at the scenes in the book.
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2 for plot – For me, things wrapped up a little too quickly toward the end, but perhaps that was reflective of Coco’s reality.
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ for a fairly clean read – There are some sexual encounters mentioned, but they are kept nondescript.
Thank to Pamela for interviewing with me, and as always, thank you, dear follower, for reading. To learn more about Pamela, you can visit her WEBSITE or follow her on: