Iva Polansky, when did you first become interested in history?
History was always on my radar. I grew up in Prague, a city paved with history. My mother was a high-school history teacher, who strived to make the subject both interesting and amusing. She was a born story-teller and when you entered the school building, you could find her classroom by the frequent laughter filtering through the door. Purist historians may not agree with this light approach, but I think it is a good tool for awakening interest in young people. After all, what is history if not the sum of human foibles?
What attracted you to the historical fiction genre?
Again, I read historical fiction since my childhood, but the one I remember above all was Forever Amber set in the Restoration England. It was summertime, I was fourteen then, and while my friends splashed in a pool, I stayed in my room, immersed in the last chapters. I needed to know whether Amber would finally capture her Bruce.
She did not, but I concluded that bad girls had more fun nevertheless.
Is Nelly McKay of Fame and Infamy anything like Amber?
I wouldn’t say that. Both are survivors, but while Amber is completely amoral, Nelly has a moral sense instilled into her. Her initial problems are too much self-confidence, her unbridled American optimism and egalitarian approach to society. Accompanying a newly married American heiress as a lady’s maid, she expects to catch a distinguished husband on her own, but Paris – as it was in the 1870’s – soon cuts her down to size. She has entered a city where marriage is a cold financial transaction, a city where an average of 15,000 children a year are born out-of-wedlock and often abandoned simply because a whole section of population is unable to save fifty francs for a marriage license. Nelly’s naiveté, combined with her involvement in a criminal case, soon pays dividends in difficulties.
What you describe is a sad story.
What I describe is the background against which the story develops. To be sure, there is mystery and danger, even despair and sorrow, but I could not resist my penchant for farcical situations. Life is not exclusively a tragedy or a comedy. It’s the combination of both.
How did you construct the characters?
I created a good cross-section of the French society at the time, from beggars to the morally correct middle class and up to the cultural elite and aristocracy. The demimonde milieu in which Nelly evolves provides plenty of local color. A good portion of the characters are true historical persons.
How do you keep them true to life?
I strictly respect their personalities. I make sure they do or say nothing that is out of character. For instance, Victor Hugo was a passionately vindictive man so taking his revenge on the heroine is nothing he would not have done in real life.
Who else do we meet in the novel?
The eccentric actress Sarah Bernhardt, Freud’s teacher Professor Charcot, who was the world’s authority on hysteria, Jules Verne and other prominent figures of the time. On the German side there’s the crafty chief of German intelligence service Wilhelm Stieber and my personal favorite, Chancellor Bismarck. They both get a little bruised in this story.
It’s France. How about “l’amour”?
There is a good dose of it. However, romance is not the only thing the book is about. It’s also about fame and its consequences; it’s about social issues and about friendship and personal growth.
Your plans for the future?
I’m working on my next novel Boarding House for Single Gentlemen set in Belle Epoque Paris. It will be an Upstairs Downstairs with a very French flair.
Thank you, Iva.
Annmarie Banks for Historical Fiction eBooks