Champagne, history, romance and adventure. It’s a winning combination, and author Fiona McIntosh has combined them all in her new historical novel The Champagne War, set in northern France during The Great War.
The book’s heroine, Sophie, is a fifth generation champenoise from Épernay, in the Champagne region of France, battling to keep her vineyard going while enduring bombings, sugar shortages and personal tragedies.
Fiona McIntosh, an internationally best-selling author based in South Australia, known for pouring tremendous energy into her research, has succeeded in producing a page-turner providing insight into this war-torn era.
She chats to The Starfish:
Congratulations on this book. Are you very happy with this one?
I’m deeply satisfied mostly because this one, more than any other in recent memory, has taken its toll. It was written through a time of grief in losing a most beloved person in my life and at times I couldn’t see my way clear in this story that has its very dark and harrowing moments. But I pushed through and after five drafts we found ourselves staring at one of the best books I’ve written. That makes the hard work and angst worth it and I know I’m giving my readers a fabulous, emotional, enriching story.
How did you stumble on the idea for this one; were you in France at the time?
Yes. I was on a day trip into the Champagne region, visiting the cathedral city of Reims and came upon a marvellous photo exhibition of the city during WWI. Every picture told a magnificent story in itself and I just knew in my heart that I was going to use all of them to pull together a fabulous novel about a champagne maker during The Great War, whose frontline was on the doorstep of Reims.
It’s set in rural France and Belgium. Did you travel to Épernay and Ypres to do the research?
Several times in fact. Four trips alone to Épernay, Reims, Paris. Ypres I didn’t have to do more than once because it’s only one small – albeit catastrophic and vital scene. Most of the battle action is in the Marne just outside the gates of Reims.
You’re known for doing meticulous research for your novels; what did you do for The Champagne War?
Good grief, where to begin? JA tower of books, a mountain of interviews, so many museums and galleries. I worked alongside a war historian – a specialist on WWI – in France, walking with him over battlefields and poring over topographical maps. I met so many people involved in the champagne industry and who kindly allowed me into their lives and businesses to learn about the traditional method. One person in particular upon whom my heroine is based, opened up her life and cellars…her family and home to me.
Did you know much about the prominent wine families of France and World War One before you wrote it?
No, I was like most people…I knew a little about some of the well known industry people like Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot and Madame Pommery but it was a pleasure to learn a lot more about their lives and contribution to the champagne industry. As for WWI, yes, I’ve researched it for several books and so I’ve learned plenty down the years but each book demands something different and I had never learned about The Great War in the Champagne region so that required a new education.
What did you learn, and were you inspired by any real life characters?
Too much learned to list but I was inspired by Marie Curie who won two Nobel Prizes; one with her husband in Physics for their research and the second in her own right in Chemistry for her work with radium and radioactivity. I found it particularly interesting that she was Polish, had to learn French very quickly to study and went on to be such a towering researcher of her time. Discovering that she developed mobile X-ray ambulances, that she could take to the front to help with injured soldiers during WWI was beyond inspiring and I simply had to have her walk into the pages of my book in a cameo role.
Did you have any family members who were gassed or injured in WWI ? I wondered this as perhaps there was a personal reason you chose to make mention of this. (I never knew my grandfather whose lungs were damaged due to the gassing and he died when my dad was just 10.)
No, I don’t. The only family member that the McIntoshes have was in the Light Horse and died at Lone Pine during WWI at Gallipoli. But I have read so many accounts of the gassing that I wanted to include the first ever release of poison gas that took the Allies by surprise and created such pain and suffering to soldiers, animals, life.
Your main character, Sophie, is rich and beautiful, from a prominent wine family. Did you base her character on anybody in particular?
Yes, indeed. She is loosely based on Sophie Signolle who is the sixth generation champenoise for House Gonet in Épernay. She is a widow, opera lover and daring maker of champagne. She inspired Sophie Delancré throughout.
You’ve written many best-sellers, what do think will appeal to fans in this one?
Well this feels like the perfect book club read for a start J I think clubs will enjoy having their discussion over a flute or two of champagne, perhaps even trying out a couple of the recipes that I’ve included in the book as their treats. I feel the story arc is very appealing to my loyal fans…there’s a triangular relationship that always adds tension to a story and the sense of loss is huge in this book for all the characters and that makes it a challenging read. But this is counterbalanced by Épernay and its champagne and in particular the grapes. I have imbued each grape style with a personality that adds some tremendous charm to the story and when the champagne is opened and the bubbles effervesce or we move through the sun-drenched vineyards it adds that lovely lightness and freshness into the story so badly needed as I pull the reader from the trenches. I think these distinctly different atmospheres add enormously to the pleasure of the read. Learning about champagne, learning about the great flood of Paris, learning about life in this era all adds to a read that my fans appreciate. I think my audience enjoys the tension of my stories but they also really love that when they put the book down for the last time they genuinely feel enriched having learned something about something. And finally I think champagne is irresistible to most! The setting, era and idea of a woman in meltdown sets up for an absorbing tale.
How many book ideas are bubbling away at the back of your mind at any one time? Do you already have ideas for the next few?
Of course…I need to. We work so far ahead. I have already written the crime novel for 2021 and that is in its final stages of edit. I am knee deep in writing the 2021 historical fiction novel that is set in Britain and Germany during the inter-war years of the 1930s. I am researching my 2022 novel that due to Covid will need to be an all Australian story – my first – and I am already setting up for my 2023 historical fiction…I know what it’s about, its theme and motif. I know its locations and the very rough arc of its story. And I have several ideas for beyond then..
How has this year’s covid restrictions impacted your work, and what’s next for you?
Covid has clipped my wings. I travel overseas for all my stories. They are traditionally set in far flung places and with no travel through most of 2020 and I suspect through 2021, I will not be able to consider writing my internationally based books. Instead, I am corralled and a few months ago when the decision was made to work with an all-Aussie setting, I couldn’t even think about travelling outside of South Australia so that’s where it will be located for 2022. It’s forced me to find a story that is wholly domestic and so local for me that I’m still blinking with surprise that it will unfold in locations in and around where I live. That in itself is a challenge as I tend to want to gallivant with my characters across all sorts of lanscapes and essentially armchair travel my reader.
I read that you do some of your best writing in Tasmania. Where do you go there and how does being there help your writing? Where was this one written?
I have done some of my best writing in Tasmania. We are fortunate to have a house overlooking a bay about one hour south of Hobart and there’s something about this setting that is so peaceful and inspiring for me. I find it very easy to write from that spot with only the birds making all the noise. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to get there in recent times plus some people who needed accommodation asked us if they could move into the house for a year. We could hardly say no as they have three young children. But with Covid, one year has turned to two for them in our house and I suspect they will move into their new home from next year, fingers crossed. The Champagne War has been written entirely in South Australia as has Mirror Man, the new crime and the 2021 historical novel. Maybe from next year when I start in on the 2022 novel, I’ll look towards Tassie again but as that book is based in SA it would be a bit silly to move out of the state. Can’t wait to get back to Tasmania though…something in the air makes it wholly conducive for artistic pursuit.
With Xmas shopping commencing soon, who would The Champagne War appeal to in particular?
Well, I think it looks like a book for women but so many men have already read it and enjoyed it and I can understand why because two of the lead characters are soldiers – one French, one British, both allies, and both under the most traumatic situations of trying to survive. Anyone who loves historical fiction will enjoy this story I believe but particularly women of that 40+ age group who derive so much pleasure from the era….fashion, entertainment, lifestyles, challenges, the heroism of women through this timeline. I think it’s irresistible for any woman who enjoy learning about something new from her reading entertainment and being transported to a different time and place. Anyone who loves champagne of course!
The Champagne War (Penguin Random House) is out now.