Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Dianne Woodman is talking with Barbara Davis, author of The Keeper of Happy Endings.
FQ: What was your source of inspiration for writing a heart-stirring story about love, loss, and the strength of emotional connections between people?
DAVIS: This is always a hard one to answer. I never know where my ideas come from. They just drop into my head out of nowhere, usually fully formed. I knew I wanted to write a story about wedding dresses and the role they play in the wearers happily-ever-after, so I was sort of sitting with that, and then one morning I woke up and the idea was there for a family of women who were “called” to make dresses that guaranteed their brides a happy endings, while continuously being denied their own happy endings. I also knew when the idea *dropped* that I wanted to focus on how women are often conditioned to repeat their mother’s stories, and what it might feel like to break that mold, so that’s a theme that is mirrored in all the female characters in the book: generational patterns and how we break free of them
FQ: Why did you have Soline and Anson meet in Paris, France, at a hospital during World War II?
DAVIS: I felt like the best place to write about a family of wedding dress designers was Paris. I also wanted to use the American Hospital in Paris, which remained open throughout the war and played a vital role in the resistance movement, along with American Field Service’s “Gentlemen Volunteers,” who paid their own way over to France and elsewhere to drive the ambulances.
FQ: Why did you have Soline and Anson become part of the underground network that helped people escape from Nazi-occupied France?
DAVIS: The heroic story of Dr. Sumner Jackson, (an American physician born in Maine) and his role as Chief Surgeon of The American Hospital in Paris is little known but absolutely fascinating. He vowed that no German soldier would be cared for on his watch, and he kept to his word, all the while smuggling downed French and Allied airmen to safety via the underground. By putting Soline and Anson at the hospital, I could shine a light on those heroic actions.
FQ: Anson volunteered for the American Field Service during World War II. Can you provide some history about the organization and the services provided? Is AFS still operating and, if so, what is the focus of the business?
DAVIS: During WWII, AFS drivers operated ambulances in France, North Africa, the Middle East, Italy, and Germany. These drivers were not trained soldiers and rarely carried weapons, despite frequently operating in combat areas. The drivers were required to pay their own way over, supply their own uniforms and equipment, and at times, to buy their own ambulances and perform their own vehicle maintenance. Because of these financial burdens, most volunteers were young men from wealthy families who abandoned Ivy League academic careers to volunteer, this earning them the nickname “Gentlemen Volunteers.” It is estimated that AFS drivers carried over 700,000 casualties during World War II.
FQ: Can you give more details about the abduction of Rory’s fiancé, Hux, when he was working for Doctors Without Borders? Why was it so difficult for Rory to get information about Hux’s status?
DAVIS: Doctors Without Borders operates in crisis areas all over the world. The missions undertaken by DWB personnel often come with significant risk to health and personal safety. Missions may include deployment to areas if armed conflict, natural disaster, disease, and unrest due to tribal or governmental unrest. Kidnapping is a not common but is always a risk, as are illness, sexual violence, bodily injury, and even death. Because of the remote locals and hostile factions inherent in some of these areas, (particularly areas torn by civil war or corruption, or those lacking basic infrastructure) communication can be problematic. In such instances, trustworthy local partners can be scarce, but often play a critical role in location and extraction of hostages.
FQ: Massachusetts was an interesting choice to use as the setting for part of the story. I see you living in New Hampshire. Is there a reason you placed the characters in the neighboring state?
DAVIS: The truth is I love Boston, and I already knew the exact building on Newbury Street I wanted to use for Soline’s bridal shop and Rory’s gallery.
FQ: What made you decide to have magical charms sewn into wedding dresses interwoven into the story?
DAVIS: I began adding magical elements in my books when I wrote The Last of the Moon Girls, and my readers just loved the touch of magic. I think we all believe in magic to some extent, and even those who don’t enjoy a little escapism now and then. For me, love and magic go hand in hand, so a book about wedding gowns and happy endings seemed like a natural fit.
FQ: How much research went into the writing of this story, and what methods did you use?
DAVIS: Most of my research was on the war, specifically the French occupation and the various resistance networks. I always thought I was a solid student of history, but I learned so much I didn’t know, particularly about the Vichy government and the complicit actions of many French citizens and politicos with their Nazi occupiers. I read dozens of books, scoured the internet for articles and photos, and watched tons of YouTube videos, including actual footage recorded by survivors of the roundups. Some of it was incredibly hard to watch, but it’s good to be reminded now and then what can happen if we’re not vigilant. I wanted some of that to come through in the book too.
FQ: The characters seemed so real - are any of them based on real people? Did you go to a public place where you observed people and used details from your observations to create characters? If not, how did you come up with the characters and their personalities?
DAVIS: None of the characters are based on real people. They just developed as I wrote, and rewrote, and rewrote. Creating people out of thin air is my favorite part of writing. I always start with “cutouts” at the start of each story, because I don’t know who they need to be for the story to work. I know a little about them when I set out, but I need to discover who they are at their core as I write them into situations. I love building those layers, figuring out how to make them tick and stretch and grow. My favorite books are always the ones with the most complex and scarred characters, the ones who have had to learn the hard way.
FQ: Did you draw on any personal experiences in the writing of this story?
DAVIS: I’d have to say that the most personal parts of this story were those that dealt with the fact that women so often fall into the patterns of the women who raise them. We’re not always taught to want more, expect more, believe in the idea that we could actually have more. Worse, we’re rarely taught that we deserve more. In my family, women were subservient. They existed to obey and produce, to marry and raise children, and let the man make the decisions. I was the first woman in my family to break that mold and I met with some pretty stiff resistance as I moved further and further out of my (and their) comfort zone. Each of the female characters In The Keeper of Happy Endings, dealt with a similar resistance in their lives, and each had to make a conscious decision to pursue the life they wanted for themselves.