Guest host Julie Chavez is joined by New York Times bestselling author Kristin Harmel to discuss The Paris Daughter, a gripping and gut-wrenching historical novel about two mothers who must make unthinkable choices in the face of Nazi occupation. Kristin talks about the power of WWII books (and the lessons that still resonate today); the themes of motherhood, fear, and sacrifice in her novel; balancing writing, motherhood, and Friends & Fiction; and her recent breast cancer diagnosis.


Julie Chavez: Kristin, thank you so much for coming today. I am so happy that I get to be the one to interview you for “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Kristin Harmel: I’m so happy too because I know you also write about motherhood, so this will be such a perfect conversation. I’m looking forward to it.

Julie: Yes, I’m sure it will be stilted and horrible, and we’ll have nothing to talk about. I look forward to that. Awkward pauses abound from here on out.

Kristin: A ton. I absolutely expect that.

Julie: Clearly. We’re here today specifically to talk about The Paris Daughter, which is out on June 6th. June 6th? Yes. I was just checking in my copy here right in front of me. This is such a beautifully written book. One of the blurbs for it, Lisa Barr said, “It was exquisite and gut-wrenching.” Gut-wrenching was the absolute word that kept coming to me, or phrase. I just kept thinking, oh, my gosh. Part of my excitement for talking to you, too, is that when I picked this up, I realized I read, years ago, probably right after its release, but I read The Room on Rue Amelie years ago.

Kristin: That’s awesome. How great.

Julie: It was so fun for me to come back to your writing because you’re just so talented with historical fiction. I really enjoy your books.

Kristin: Thank you.

Julie: Since you have a little more practice at it, tell us what The Paris Daughter is about.

Kristin: It’s funny that you say I have more practice at it because I’m just beginning to hone my elevator pitch for it. You’re going to get the unfiltered. Let me throw all these things at you. Tell me what you think.

Julie: I love it.

Kristin: I have the first few words down, but then the rest of it, I just spin off on a tangent. It’s the story of two mothers, two daughters, an ally bomb that falls where it shouldn’t in the suburbs of Paris, two families torn apart forever, a disappearance, and a mystery that lingers for seventeen years until a chance meeting across the ocean in New York in 1960 sends the two women hurtling back into each other’s paths reawakening old wounds — maybe reopening old wounds; see, I’m honing as I go — and sending them hurtling toward a conclusion that’ll change everything for both of them forever. Did that capture it? Since you’ve read the book, did I do it in my elevator pitch?

Julie: Yes, you did. That was perfect.

Kristin: Excellent. Nailed.

Julie: Nailed it. Done. You can take that off of your list of things to do today.

Kristin: It’ll never come out of my mouth that way again, but it came out today. That’s okay.

Julie: That was a perfect description because there are so many turns in this book. I was really enjoying that. For me, sometimes historical fiction, it can be slower, I find. I think it’s still super valuable. Everyone loves different books and all the things. This one really has a lot of motion to it. I just thoroughly enjoyed it. It was so well done.

Kristin: Thanks for saying that. I think maybe that is one of the advantages to having been writing about World War II for so long. My first World War II book came out in 2012, The Sweetness of Forgetting, but I had written it a couple years before that. I’ve been kind of living in this world for a while. Therefore, I have a little bit of an advantage in being able to establish the world quickly because I know it very well. Does that make sense? Maybe I can dive into the plot a little bit more quickly than I would’ve been able to do a decade ago.

Julie: That makes absolute sense. You’re very effective with that. You have just the right number of details.

Kristin: Oh, good. Thank you. Thanks.

Julie: You’ve been writing about World War II for a long time. You’ve obviously been writing historical fiction for a number of years. What is it that keeps you there? Why is that your sweet spot?

Kristin: I never intended for it to be. When I wrote The Sweetness of Forgetting in 2010 or so — it came out in 2012. I thought, okay, I’ve written my World War II book. Back to something else. I did write something else after. I wrote a book called The Life Intended, which was very different. It was set primarily in the present day. It was not historical fiction. The whole time I was writing that book, which I loved — I’m still very proud of that book. The whole time I was writing that book, I missed being in that World War II universe. I missed finding those details that just make you draw your breath in and say, I can’t believe that happened. I want to share that with somebody. I have found that every World War II book I have written, there is something in the research that has led me to the next book, a question, something that makes me gasp, something that makes my heart pound a little more quickly. That was the case with this book too. I do feel that sometimes readers hear, oh, it’s a World War II book, and they think, I’ve read a thousand World War II books. I’m not going to pick this one up. I get that. There are a lot of World War II books out there.

I do think that there are still a lot of World War II stories that are untold. I think that that time period still has a lot of lessons for us, not just in the way that the past really feels like it’s resonating in the politics of today in some ways, but also because of the idea that during World War II, the war was largely won by ordinary citizens standing up to do incredible things. That’s not the case with every war. Ordinary people just like you and me really played a big role in this war. I think it’s an important reminder to all of us in our daily lives that wherever we come from, whatever our stations in life are, we do have the ability to make a difference. Sometimes the way toward the light is something we have to lead ourselves. We have to blaze that path ourselves in some ways. I do want to note that even though this is still firmly a World War II book in a lot of ways, forty percent of the book takes place in 1960. It is a foot in the World War II genre. Also, my other foot is standing in a very different decade across the ocean. You get a little bit of both with this book.

Julie: You do get a bit of both. You’re exactly right. There’s so much that’s resonate from those themes that we pull out when we learn about World War II or when we think about it. It seems like — tell me if this is correct. You need redemption in your books.

Kristin: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.

Julie: Not need. They’re never hopeless.

Kristin: I think that’s important to note because I want people to take that away. I want them to realize that in the darkest of situations, there is always hope. There’s always a better tomorrow. You just have to figure out your way there. I think that applies to us in the modern day too. The stories that take place during World War II are a very powerful reminder of that lesson, which continues to resonate in our lives.

Julie: You do a really good job of drawing that forward and just presenting it for the reader in a way that’s very beautiful. Your books make me equally ache and hope. There’s just a real beauty there.

Kristin: Thank you so much. I always feel like I should apologize when people — they’re like, your books made me cry. Your books made me ache. I’m like, I’m so sorry, but you had to. You had to get there.

Julie: Absolutely. It’s the idea, all of the science around how reading fiction makes us more empathic and gives us more access to imagination, which is something we need so deeply. This idea that if you did go to that place, it means you were there. You were immersed in it. It really is the highest compliment that I can give. Your words, the vibe, all of it, if it stays with me, then it’s been a worthy amount of time spent. Your books are definitely like that.

Kristin: Thank you so much. That is a wonderful compliment. I appreciate it.

Julie: Of course. I wanted to ask you a little bit about, what’s the shape of your life? You are churning out books. You are part of “Friends & Fiction,” which seems like just the most fun group of friends.

Kristin: It is.

Julie: It’s just adorable. I want in. You’re doing that, your podcast. You’re a mom. Also, you guys have live recordings in addition to the podcast, correct? It feels like “Friends & Fiction” has become its own little spiderweb of fun. “Fun & Fiction.”

Kristin: Yes. Spiderweb, that’s a good way to put it. Our web of fun, exactly.

Julie: A non-dangerous web. Just a fun web. Tell me about, what’s a day like for you? How do you do it?

Kristin: I wish I could tell you that I had some big secret for excellent time management. The fact is I get up probably too early because the second I’m conscious in the morning, I’m thinking, oh, my gosh, I have a to-do list a mile long today. I’m usually up by about five thirty or six trying to get a little bit of work done before my seven-year-old and my husband wake up. We get him out the door to school. Although, today that we are recording this is the last day of school, so the summer looms before us. I’m already having anxiety about how the days are going to work out then.

Julie: A hundred percent. Summer is like, you just throw all the balls up in the air. I don’t know where they’re going to land.

Kristin: Just hope they land. Exactly.

Julie: Fingers crossed. Oh, summer.

Kristin: In general, I tend to write in the mornings. I tend to try to get my email inbox cleaned out. Although, as I’m sure you know, it tends to just build right back up again. There’s never any relief. Then we do a lot of “Friends & Fiction” business-related stuff in the afternoons or in the evenings. As you noted, we have a live show. It’s on Facebook and YouTube on Wednesday nights. For anyone who doesn’t know “Friends & Fiction,” it’s me, Mary Kay Andrews, Patti Callahan Henry, and Kristy Woodson Harvey. All four of us are New York Times best-selling authors. Every week on our live Facebook and YouTube show on Wednesdays at seven eastern, we invite other authors on. We talk about their books. Then we also have a podcast. A new episode drops every Friday. That is cohosted by librarian Ron Block. We also have different authors on that show every week. It is a lot, but we love it. Just like you are, Julie, I’m sure, we are equally readers. We’re writers, but we’re readers just as much as we’re writers. It’s great for us to be able to dive deep into other people’s books too.

Julie: A hundred percent. I love that Mary Kay Andrews is on that list because I went through a heavy Mary Kay Andrews phase. I just tore through her books day and night in college.

Kristin: That is awesome. I’m going to tell her you said that. That’s great.

Julie: One of my kids — I was listening to one of your podcasts. She was talking. They said, “Who is that?” I said, “A woman who’s written a gazillion books.”

Kristin: She has. It’s totally true.

Julie: It is. I love the way that you guys interact and the friendship you bring to it. There’s a real kindness and goodness to your presence in the literary world. I’m just so glad that you guys do that. It’s really a joy.

Kristin: Thank you for saying that. That really means a lot to me. It’s very important to all of us to be good literary citizens. That’s why we started the show. We started it at the beginning of the pandemic as a way to connect with readers and then as a way to help independent books and ultimately, as a way to lift up other authors too. That’s really at the very core of what we do. This is a tough industry. Things change. Some books do better than others. Sometimes big opportunities come your way. Sometimes they don’t. It’s nice to be in a boat with three people where even if the sea is kind of tossing you around, you know you have these people who are going to help you into a life vest and hold you afloat. How long can I keep this ridiculous metaphor going? There’s an ocean. There’s a boat. Maybe we should have oars. I don’t even know. We’ll send up a flare.

Julie: Are there snacks in the boat? I just want to make sure you have something to eat.

Kristin: Always.

Julie: Okay, good.

Kristin: Also, we packed a couple bottles of wine just in case.

Julie: Perfect. You knew exactly where I was going with this. Maybe a little sunscreen.

Kristin: Obviously.

Julie: Whenever I watch Castaway, I really worry about sun damage. Things like that. We’re getting older. All the things.

Kristin: That is fair. We think ahead. Yes, of course, we have all those things in our metaphorical boat.

Julie: We’ve ridden that metaphor all the way into shore. I am here for it. Basically, what you’re saying is you’re insanely efficient. Every day is exactly the same. Very rigid. Perfect. I feel like I’m listening well here.

Kristin: No, not at all.

Julie: I’m kidding. I love that approach. I love talking to people like that. When someone tells me, “I get up at four every morning. I meditate. Then I write for two hours,” I’m like, okay. I’m so happy for you, but that will not be happening in my life.

Kristin: I basically live in a constant state of panic, seventeen steps behind where I need to be in every single area of my life. It all gets done eventually. One of these days, I’m going to learn to worry less and just do it and realize the chips are going to fall where they fall. The boat will still come into shore.

Julie: Yes, it will indeed. We will not sink.

Kristin: With snacks and with wine.

Julie: That’s right. We’ll pack out our trash. It’s going to be fine. It’s such a tricky time. One thing I wanted to talk about with The Paris Daughter, the themes of motherhood are so powerful in this. I think that’s why it’s just so heart centered. Anyone who’s had the experience of not only being a mother, but mothering someone — you could be an aunt. You can be a person who just cares for someone and grows them up in the world. There are parts of this book where you just — it’s very layered. I don’t want to say too much. The characters are flawed just like real human people. Something I love about it is that you judge them at certain points, and you release them at certain points. There’s a lot of forgiveness. Those themes, I think because the act of mothering is so central and intimate, you can’t help but put yourself in the position of some of these characters. You write it so well, so it’s easy to do that. I wanted to ask you about that because when I was reading it, I thought, Kristin is a mother. How did you go there? I was wondering about that. I’m reading it just wiping tears away thinking, how did she do this? There are multiple points in the book where mothers are having to make wrenching decisions, which is such a part of what we understand about World War 2. How did you manage that?

Kristin: First of all, thank you for all the kind words about it. I will say I think as writers, our best work comes from facing our deepest fears head on and our deepest worries about our own shortcomings. I, in some ways, think that putting these women in situations where they had to make, essentially, impossible decisions might have come a little bit from my own feelings about having to make decisions for my child during the pandemic. It’s apples and oranges. You cannot compare making decisions during World War II to save your child’s life with making decisions during the early days of the pandemic. When you think back to 2020 when COVID was still very scary, when it felt like people were dying from it, when the cases were much more aggressive and much deadlier, as mothers, we had to make these decisions that were impossible. Do I send my child to school? Do I keep my child home? There were pros and cons to both. There was no real good decision. Any decision you made, you realized your child was going to lose things. Your child was going to miss out. That weighed really heavily on me at the time. Again, acknowledging that, certainly, that is not at all the same thing as what women faced during wartime when trying to save their children’s lives, I felt like I understood a little bit of that feeling of being in an impossible predicament and feeling like all you had to go with was your gut as a mother. You would do anything in the world to make life better for your child, but you couldn’t control variables that were outside of your control.

I think maybe that was a little bit of the root of this story. In all the research I had done about World War II and all the writing I had done about World War II, that was one of the things that struck me the most. Women and men could make the decision to go join the resistance or to do things that were brave on their own. When people were parents and they were in that same situation with the same things bearing down on them, the stakes changed. I really wanted to explore that. How were the stakes different? What would you do if you were a mother in the midst of wartime? It was very difficult to write because some horrible things happened, without any spoilers. Of course, they did. We’re in the midst of a war. Not everybody survives. Unfortunately, that’s true in areas of conflict even today. When civilian areas are bombed, it’s not just the soldiers who are killed. It’s very innocent people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, which is heartbreaking and is as heartbreaking now as it was then. It was hard to put myself in that position. I have a little boy who’s seven now. I had to let myself go to some very dark places in thinking about, what would I do if I had to send him away because it was his best chance of survival? What would I do if I lost him? Those are awful, awful things to think about. Let me actually ask you — I hope you don’t mind if I turn it back around on you. Your memoir is about — partially, at least — about motherhood also. Is that something you explored also? Did you explore having to make difficult decisions?

Julie: I didn’t because it’s sort of the reverse for me. A lot of what precipitated this crisis for me — for people that don’t know, it’s my story of depression and anxiety and a season of intensity with that after I had really become depleted. I’d gone back to work, all these things. So much of what I feared, my anxiety really pivoted on my death. I had a really scary experience with an allergy shot that was leading to anaphylaxis. They were able to stop it. It just was one of those moments where it put a crack in everything for me. The idea of dying and abandoning my children became just too much to even contemplate. Anxiety is so strange and vicious. I had never experienced it like that before where it was like it was looking for somewhere to land. Suddenly, it had its place. That was all I could think about. Everything was supersized. I was telling my husband that was five years ago on Mother’s Day, really when things bottomed out for me. The idea, though, that I would not be there for them, that’s probably why, also, reading this, that’s the most difficult thing to contemplate. Also, I think the hardest part for me of being a parent is you don’t have control. It’s an illusion. It’s always an illusion. I labor under that illusion, and so reminding myself of that. It’s a perennial thing. No one wants to have to leave early.

Kristin: Absolutely. I feel like I’m going to learn a lot from your memoir. I can’t wait to read it. It’s called Everyone but Myself, right? It comes out in January?

Julie: Yes.

Kristin: I can’t wait. It sounds right up my alley, just that exploration. I feel like The Paris Daughter does that too, just explores a little bit. Certainly, not as much as your memoir does, but explores that idea that you don’t have control. You can do the absolute best you can, and there’s no guarantee it’s going to work out the way that you want it to. That’s a really unsettling feeling when you’re responsible for these people you love more than anything in the world, right?

Julie: Yes. How do we hold that tension? That’s a constant question for me. How do I hold the tension that these are things that happen? People die in wars. They die in all sorts of ways. We live in these fragile bodies in these fragile worlds. How do I hold that with this feeling of bulletproof love? How do we put all these together? It’s just something that always fascinates me and also feels heavy at times. Then the flip side of that is, how hopeful is that? In spite of all of that, that we can have that sort of recklessness in the way we love each other, that’s a beautiful thing to remember. I love books like this for that reason.

Kristin: Thank you. Another thing that my book is sort of a reminder of is that we all have a well of strength within us that runs deeper than we know. I think that’s an important thing to remember as a mother too. You can face the difficult things because you will bring to the table whatever strength you need to deal with whatever situation you’re facing even if you didn’t think you had that strength. You have it. We all have it. We’ll find it when we need it. I look forward to reading about that in your book too. I commend you on being able to write a memoir. Writing about myself is difficult for me. I think I wind up writing about myself, but I do it through these fictional characters I create. I think it takes a lot of strength and clarity to be able to put yourself so directly on the page that way. I really admire people who can do that.

Julie: I appreciate that because I worry that it’s just sort of quiet narcissism that is overtaking me.

Kristin: No, it’s not. It’s very brave. No.

Julie: I did tell my husband recently, I was like, “I would rather chew glass than write another memoir about me.” This is horrible. We’re done. Okay, enough about you, Julie. I’m speaking to myself here. I did want to ask you, when you were talking about the reserves of strength and wells — before we go, I want to make sure we touch on your recent life. You were diagnosed with breast cancer.

Kristin: I was.

Julie: This book was already done when you were diagnosed, right?

Kristin: Yeah, it was, but I was still in the final rounds of edits. We were probably at first-pass pages or something like that. It was past the point where I could make any large changes to it. It was pretty much done. I was diagnosed at the end of October, just this past year, October 2022. It was completely a surprise. I just turned forty-four, so I was forty-three at the time. I didn’t have any relevant family history. I didn’t have any risk factors that I knew about. I didn’t feel a lump. I just went in for my mammogram. They said, “We see something suspicious. We’d like to get a biopsy.” I thought, it’s probably just a cyst. I’ve had cysts before. I’m sure it’s nothing. Indeed, it was not nothing. That thing that was not nothing turned out to be more aggressive than we thought too. After they took it out on November 3rd — I had a lumpectomy to remove it. The hope was that I would just need to have radiation. I think that’s pretty common with stage-one breast cancer, that you just need radiation. You need a lumpectomy or a mastectomy plus radiation. Because once they analyzed the tumor itself, it turned out to be more aggressive, I also needed to have three months of chemotherapy. I had three months of chemotherapy and four weeks of daily radiation that just wrapped up about a month ago. It’s been quite a journey. As you tied it into that idea of finding strength we didn’t know we had, that was completely my experience.

When I got that diagnosis, I was completely floored. First thought, of course, was about my child, my son Noah who was six at the time. I knew intellectually it was an early stage, and I was not going to die from it right now, but your head goes to all those places. You think, even if we treat it now, what if it comes back? What if I don’t get to see him graduate high school or see him get married or see all those things that you just kind of take for granted you’re going to be there for? That was terrifying. It was terrifying to face this and to go through all of these things like chemo and radiation and to not know what was going to happen to my body or my schedule or my life or my brain or my ability to mother or my ability to write books. It was very scary. I also realized I had been writing myself into a place to deal with this for the last decade. I have been writing books about characters who find themselves in situations they didn’t ask for, that they didn’t expect, that they couldn’t have imagined being able to find their way through. In all of these books, including The Paris Daughter, these women find a way forward because that’s what we do. We do that as women. We do that as mothers. We put one foot in front of another. We find a way to make life okay for our children. We find a way to survive. We find a way, if we can, to turn lemons into lemonade.

That’s what I’m trying to do with talking about it as often as I can. I feel like having this surprise diagnosis because I went in for a mammogram when I’m a woman who has readers who are in the age group that needs that reminder has given me a platform to be able to say to you, to be able to say to everyone listening out there, if you’re overdue on your mammogram, please talk to your doctor about it. If you’re not old enough for a mammogram yet, if you’re under forty, talk to your doctor about a clinical breast exam. Just stay vigilant about it. If it could happen to me for absolutely no reason at the age of forty-three, and I didn’t feel it, it can happen to you. If it does happen to you, it’s okay because we’re in the year 2023, and modern medicine exists. There are a million ways to deal with it. You will get to the other side too. Don’t be scared. The sooner you catch something, the sooner you can deal with it. That’s my little PSA for the day, my public service announcements.

Julie: I love it and couldn’t agree more because that’s the true self-care that we need to be doing, which is just being as vigilant for ourselves as we would be for someone we loved.

Kristin: It’s true. You and I were talking a little bit before we went on and started recording about how as mothers, we tend to put everyone else — or even just as women, even people who are not mothers. I think we tend to put everyone else first and take care of everyone else and put ourselves last in that list. You got to think about what they tell you to do on an airplane, to put your own mask on first and then help those around you. That’s important. If you’re not here or if you’re not healthy, you can’t be there to help everyone else around you. You got to look out for yourself. Making sure that you’re doing early screening as recommended by your doctor is an important component of that.

Julie: I couldn’t agree more. That was an excellent PSA. I think everyone in the boat is very happy. I think we’ve done very well.

Kristin: Let’s just uncork that wine now, the wine and the snacks. I’m ready.

Julie: It’s so true. Kristin, thank you for this time. This was a joy. I loved our conversation. I think people are going to love The Paris Daughter. Congratulations.

Kristin: Thank you so much. Congratulations on your upcoming memoir too. I’m really excited about it.

Julie: Thanks so much.

THE PARIS DAUGHTER by Kristin Harmel

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