Interview with Renée-Michele Payne, Author of Every Time We Say Goodbye

August 5, 2020 at 6:52 am Leave a comment

Suzanne and Jean, a handsome young couple, meet and fall in love in the vibrant artistic atmosphere of Nancy in 1928. They marry and move to Paris, which is for Suzanne a dream come true. But their marriage is far from trouble-free, and even before war comes to Europe, much of their time is spent apart. The story of their love affair, which is enduringly passionate, but ultimately tragic, is played out on an international stage from Paris to Tangiers, Morocco, Spain, and various locations in France, as well as prison camps in Germany and escape routes through the Netherlands and Belgium.

A novel inspired by a true story,“Every Time We Say Goodbye” is a compelling story of sacrifice, love, and suffering, rich in period detail. Ultimately it is a story of phenomenal courage, of fierce devotion to country and freedom, of the resiliency and endurance of love. It is also about the devastating and persistent intergenerational wounds of war. I recently interviewed the author, Renée-Michele Payne, about the background of her book, and the process of writing it, via email. Here is our conversation. Janet Hulstrand

Janet: What inspired you want to write this story? And how long did it take you? 

Renee: I worked on this book for about 20 years. In 1997, my mother and I were at a department store in the Washington area, when she noticed an elderly woman sitting in a chair at the counter of the beauty salon. My mother approached her, and called out her name. The woman looked up at her, and said: “Forgive me. It was the circumstances.” They cried together for a moment before the woman was called away, for her appointment for a facial.

That was the woman on whom the character of Suzanne is based.

Ever since I learned the details about the couple who was the inspiration for the characters in my novel, I have wanted to write their story. I wanted to solve the mysteries that surrounded them: about the choices they made, their successes and failures, and how the tragedy of the Second World War changed their future together.

The young writer that the character of Jean is based upon had received many positive reviews for his first book, which was a collection of poetic musings. He was asked to write critiques of new publications for many well-known literary journals. An artist painted his portrait, Henri Martinie snapped his photo. The book was translated into Italian, and it was reviewed in the United States, in the Saturday Review. Yet, in spite of an announcement of new works to come, he published nothing after 1930, two years after his early success. Why? What could have happened? I wanted to know.

Another reason I wanted to tell his story was my reaction to what one of the critics had written: that the young writer had to be great, or be nothing. In a factual account I read of a prison escape that “Jean” had helped to engineer, a version of which is detailed in the novel, one of the freed prisoners called him “a pure hero,” the kind of man with whom the Resistance would do miracles to free the country from the jaws of the occupiers and their collaborators. That line brought me to tears. I didn’t want the legacy of such a man to be “nothing.”

At first I was hoping to write a biography, but there were too many gaps that were impossible to fill in through my research, so I decided to use what I already knew, and was able to find out, as the framework for a fictional story, and imagine the details.

The character of Suzanne presented another mystery. As in the book, she changed her identity during the war, and cut off communication with her family. I remember her as a shadowy figure, appearing and disappearing in our lives. My mother loved her, and would tell me stories about her. I mourned her absence from my life. I wanted to know why she had made the choices she did. Was it a result of the trauma of the war? Or was it due to a character flaw? Whenever my mother met someone from her past, they would ask about “Suzanne.” She was clearly someone to be remembered.

I changed the characters’ names for reasons of privacy. I never met the model for Jean, as he was killed before I was born, but the stories I heard about him were the impetus for my research. At the beginning, I knew little about his role in the Resistance, or where he had lost his life. I formed the character not only from the stories I had heard about him, but from the countless queries I sent out, and the research I did.

Unfortunately, most of his family had already passed, and the distant cousins I managed to find knew nothing about him. I was able to obtain a copy of his book, and I was excited to see that it was dedicated to a friend. I began buying multiple copies of his books, and learning about his circle of friends from the dedications he had written in them.

I learned about the place where he had died from the Center for Jewish Documentation in Paris. That also gave me his birthdate. When I received that information, he became alive for me. As in the novel, he was a young writer, born in Paris to a Jewish family originally from the Alsace-Lorraine region. He was the youngest ever to receive a doctorate in letters from the University of Caen, in 1924, at the age of 21, a fact that was reported in several newspapers at that time. His book of poetic musings was published in 1928. In 1930, he married a young Jewish woman from Morocco. She began to study mathematics and physics, and later she worked in a laboratory in Paris.

When the war broke out, Jean joined the fight. He was captured and sent to a prison camp in Germany, from which he escaped. He then joined the Resistance. It was after D-Day, but still in June of 1944 that he was arrested and executed. Suzanne did not learn of the location of his death until a few months later. He was buried initially in the cemetery of the town where the execution took place. Sometime later his body was moved, but I have been unable to find the location of his final resting place.

Janet: What was the hardest thing about writing it? The saddest? The most rewarding? 

Renee: The hardest part of writing the novel was the creation of believable three-dimensional characters who would spark and maintain the interest of readers. The saddest part was learning about the traumas and tragedies that befell them at the hands of the Nazis. The most rewarding part was learning each new detail, receiving each new document with another clue, and meeting members of the French Resistance. I also was able to visit the town where Jean and the other résistants were executed, and made a good friend in the president of the local veterans’ association there. My family and I were welcomed to a special ceremony to commemorate V-E day, the day the Nazis were expelled from Europe. That indeed was very special, and rewarding. The president of the veterans’ association was a retired baker. Every year after our visit, he sent us a box of homemade chocolates. I was privileged to know him and his family, and I was touched when his wife called me to tell me of his passing. He was a great man, and a hero of the Resistance.


Janet Hulstrand
 is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She is the author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You, and is currently working on her next book, a literary memoir entitled “
A Long Way from Iowa.”

Entry filed under: About Writers and their Work. Tags: , , , , , , .

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