Interview with The Paris Apartment author Kelly Bowen

The Paris Apartment, by Kelly Bowen. Image courtesy MB Communication
The Paris Apartment, by Kelly Bowen. Image courtesy MB Communication /

The Paris Apartment is a beautiful story that celebrates the bravery of women during one of the darkest times in human history. For a young woman who recently inherited her grandmother’s apartment, she learns more than she ever imagined about her grandmother and it ignites a quest to unravel those secrets. We had a chance to speak with author Kelly Bowen about how she brought this incredible book to life.

It’s not often that a book like The Paris Apartment comes along. The story unfolds slowly as Lia tries to unravel the mystery of her grandmother Estelle’s past, twisting and turning as the pieces start coming together, leading to a very satisfying conclusion.

It’s not easy to navigate the heavy subject matter, but Bowen masterfully weaves tragedies with little triumphs as Lia learns what her grandmother was doing in Paris during the Nazi occupation.

We had a chance to speak with Kelly Bowen about The Paris Apartment and how she brought the book to life.

Please note: This interview includes minor spoilers for The Paris Apartment and would be best enjoyed after reading the book.

Interview with Kelly Bowen, author of The Paris Apartment

(Culturess): How did you come up with this specific story to highlight the stories of extraordinary women, and in this case women who did extraordinary things during WWII?

(Kelly Bowen): The historical roles of women in combat during the Second World War have always interested me. When I started my research into the women who served their countries for my novel, The Paris Apartment, I was introduced early to the biographies and memoirs of women in combat on the Eastern European front; snipers such as Lyudmila Pavlichenko and Roza Shanina. Sergeant Mariya Oktyabrskaya was awarded the Soviet Union’s highest award for bravery during combat at the helm of her tank, and Stalin’s female air force pilots would fly over thirty-thousand combat sorties during the course of the war and produce the world’s only two female fighter aces, Lydia Litvyak and Yekaterina Budanova.

Yet on the Western Front, where my novel is set, there were no female snipers or tank gunners or fighter pilots, because, even in a war, the British government stubbornly maintained it was not appropriate for “life givers to be life takers.” It wasn’t until 1942 that the first women would enter the war on the Western Front in a combat capacity, on the strength of the argument that women would have much greater freedom of movement under the Occupying Nazis, and that able-bodied males had become obvious Nazi targets. At that point, irregular male combatants sent covertly into Occupied Territories had a life expectancy of less than three months.

The characters of Sophie and Estelle were inspired by real agents like Virginia Hall, Nancy Wake, and Pearl Witherington Cornioley. Each of these women would be pursued and hunted by the Nazis but would ultimately survive to tell their tales. Reading their memoirs and stories, I came to appreciate the extent of the obstacles that they overcame to serve their countries.

The Paris Apartment is about the decisions we make and how we can choose to live our lives, and it’s also about second chances. Can you talk about the decision to have several stories mixed together, with one set of stories taking place in the past and one taking place in the present?

I chose to have dual narratives to reflect the way the choices made in the past can influence those in the present. When Lia’s grandmother chose to entrust her greatest secrets (both the apartment and her connection to William) to her granddaughter, I’d like to think she did so in the hopes that Lia would have the chance to achieve what she was unable to in her life. Without giving away too many spoilers, I think the reader will agree that the journey that Estelle sets her granddaughter on changes the course of Lia’s life, and perhaps that was what Estelle had intended all along.

Lia has a feeling of dread that courses through her with each new discovery in her grandmother’s apartment. The idea that her grandmother could have been a Nazi sympathizer weighs heavily upon her and you establish her unease from the very beginning. I understand you have ancestors who fought in the war; can you share how you learned about their history, and what those revelations meant to you?

As the resident family ‘historian,’ I am often the recipient of ‘old things’ found in relatives’ basements and attics, an eclectic array of items boxed and marked with a label that always reads ‘For Kelly.’ A number of years ago, one of those boxes that came into my possession contained the diary of my great-uncle, Private Percy William Shields, killed in action on the battlefields of France on September 9, 1918, age 25. In his diary, Pte. Shields wrote in great detail about his wartime experience, offering the reader a vivid glimpse into what he endured during WW1.

Twenty-two years later, both my grandfathers would serve in WW2, in the RCEME and the RCAF respectively, and while they were lucky enough to make it home, they didn’t keep a diary. Nor did they speak at all about their experiences, not to their children and certainly not to their grandchildren. The subject was off limits and it was as if those years had never existed. Except they did exist, of course, and even if my grandfather did not speak of them directly, he did share his service in the RCEME with me in a way that I didn’t recognize until I was much older. By the time I was ten, I could read radio schematics and identify and solder the correct capacitor, resistor, or transistor into place.

I am humbled by the sacrifice that so many made during this conflict, and in my novel, Lia is as well. The idea that her grandmother could have been a collaborator and an accessory to the atrocities that occurred during the Occupation shakes Lia to her core. Because Estelle did not speak of the war to anyone, including Lia, Lia is left to draw her own conclusions based only on what has been left behind. And as the story progresses, it is not only the things left behind butthe lessons they teach us that matters.

Essentially there are three love stories in The Paris Apartment: Estelle’s, Sophie’s and Lia’s. Can you talk about crafting these love stories, and your decisions for giving some of your characters a real shot at love?

No matter what type of story you’re telling, I think that the relationships in each story go a long way in shaping each character, no different than how the relationships that we have in real life shape who we are. Relationships define the story, no matter the external circumstances, and to that end, I chose to give each of my characters their own pathway to love, though each was far different.

Sophie fell hard and fast, even though her own previous biases and assumptions made her resistant to the idea of love. Estelle’s pathway to love looked nothing like romance until much later, and the connection she forged without realizing it would bear a war and endure long past. And Lia’s pathway, I like to think, was created by the voices of the past, while ultimately letting her decide how to follow love on her own terms.

Can you talk about how Estelle’s experience during the war shaped her life later on? She kept secrets from her family and was so distant at times. What do you think compelled her to not share her past?

I like to leave the reader to draw their own conclusions about the choices my characters make and how their experiences shape them. But to answer your question, I think, at least to a small degree, that it was Estelle’s belief that she had failed those closest to her that kept her from sharing her secrets. She believed that she had failed Sophie, even though Sophie made her own decisions and Estelle finished what she could not. Estelle died before she could find Aviva, and I can’t help but believe that she felt that she failed both Rachel and Aviva on that measure too. She made promises that she believed she had not kept. It was a piece of her life that was filled with grief and pain and loss, and she carried that piece the only way she knew how – by keeping it, and herself, distant from everyone.

Part of the haunting beauty of The Paris Apartment is that it is rooted in real life stories of heroism during the war and the story reflects the harsh realities of WWII. Can you talk about your experience writing some of those emotionally charged scenes?

In my research, I rely heavily on memoirs and letters, or any other first-hand accounts of those who were there. Other resource materials like reports and maps and texts gives me accurate dates and times and numbers and a factual recording of what happened but cannot convey what those who were there were feeling. Writing that emotion is the heart of any story because it is emotion that ultimately drives individuals to do extraordinary things that perhaps they never believed themselves capable of. As a writer, emotion is what I try to capture, because it’s what shapes and forges connections.

Next. Interview with Lies We Bury author Elle Marr. dark

Our gratitude goes out to Kelly Bowen for taking the time to answer our questions about her new book. The Paris Apartment is available now.