Former lawyer Christine Wells is the international best-selling author of The Traitor’s Girl and The Juliet Code.
I’m fascinated and awed by the amazing courage and ingenuity of the women who risked their lives for months on end, operating as agents in occupied France during World War II. I wanted to show how an ordinary woman rose to meet such an impossible challenge, how the war damaged her, and that she could rise again and triumph.
I chose to base a lot of Juliet’s experience on Noor Inayat Khan, who was a most unlikely spy but one of Britain’s most courageous agents. She was a wireless operator who worked for the British Special Operations Executive in occupied Paris during World War II. Everyone thought Noor was too gentle to survive the dangerous conditions under Nazi rule, but she managed to elude the Germans and operate effectively in Paris for months until she was betrayed. When German counterintelligence kept her prisoner in a mansion near the Arc de Triomphe she made several attempts to escape and fought her captors so viciously that they deemed her a dangerous prisoner and kept her handcuffed in solitary confinement.
As for my most joyous moment, finding the voice of Felix, the Special Operations Executive cryptanalyst, was one of those wonderful moments in writing when a character comes alive without any conscious effort on my part. He is funny and self-deprecating, intelligent and brave. I fell madly in love with him, and there’s a particularly poignant scene between Felix and Juliet in which I enjoyed a luxurious weeping session as I wrote. That is always very satisfying!
My most difficult challenge was balancing light and shade in the story. Anyone who has been through an experience like Juliet’s is going to carry that darkness with her, but the story is ultimately about Juliet stepping out of the shadows and embracing life.
I’ve been working on a French Resistance novel, a dual timeline about two sisters. One is the concierge of the Parisian apartment block where Christian Dior lives. The other works as a delivery girl for the haute couturier, Lucien Lelong and later becomes a mannequin for Dior. Due to their association with Christian’s sister Catherine, each sister becomes involved in the Resistance in different ways. It’s an idea that came to me years ago when I read about the sacking of John Galliano from Dior for anti-semitic remarks. It was mentioned then that Catherine Dior was a heroine of the Resistance and I felt I had to write about her.
The Juliet Code is set in wartime, so food rationing is in place, but that throws into high relief the odd occasion when my characters enjoy a forbidden delicacy. Real coffee was particularly hard to come by during the war as it was wholly imported and blockades stopped trading ships getting through to Europe, so I have a scene where my characters are savouring that rare commodity. I’m a coffee addict myself, so I wrote that from the heart!
I do love cooking and baking in particular but I don’t run to anything too complicated — I think I’m too impatient! I grew up playing sous-chef to my mother when she put on her fancy dinner parties but somehow, I never graduated to doing that kind of thing myself. I’m happier with more casual dining, where I can make a one-pot meal ahead of time and then relax and enjoy my friends’ company.
One of my favourite desserts is my mother’s apple hazelnut galette and we both make coffee cakes from my grandmother’s secret recipe. A recipe people always want from me is for my chocolate chip cookies. They are to die for, if I do say so myself!
My biggest cooking disaster was when I served crème brûlées the consistency of pouring custard at a dinner for my husband’s work colleagues. In my defence, I had to deal with a toddler bathroom emergency of epic proportions in the middle of making the custard. I distinctly remember one of our guests finally giving up on a spoon and picking up the ramekin and drinking the custard. They were so kind about it but somehow that made the embarrassment worse!
Probably my favourite cookbook is not a book at all—it’s Nigella Lawson’s online recipes. I find her actual cookbooks wonderful to read but because they can be quite dense with her luscious prose, I prefer to work from the online recipes. I love Nigella’s no-nonsense approach to cooking, the way she will take shortcuts and incorporate store-bought ingredients if she thinks they are good enough, and her recipes always turn out well for me.
Another one of my favourite cookbooks is Manu Feildel’s Manu’s French Kitchen. His recipes have beautiful, intense flavours and they are simple to follow. I enjoy trying to recreate the wonderful French food I’ve eaten in bistros over the years.
I have trouble choosing just one! But I do like the old-fashioned “gudgeon”.
Gianduja chocolates (a hazelnut flavoured chocolate filling).
I think it would have to be a retro meal that harks back to my childhood:
Entrée: Prawn cocktail
Main: Steak Diane with potato gratin and green beans
Dessert: Ice cream cassata