I am so excited to discuss our first book club pick, “The Paris Architect,” with you this week. Even more exciting than that, we were able to collect your questions for the author through our Facebook page and we are sharing Charles Belfoure’s answers with you today.
I have to say that when I picked this book, I set the standard really high for what you could come to expect from our selections. This is truly one of the most interesting historical fiction books I have ever read and it is an era in history that I am fascinated with. When so many stories from this era are told, it is hard to put a unique spin on this time period, but Belfoure does it with ease, thanks to his background as an architect.
The Paris Architect is set in 1942 in Paris and tells the story of a gifted architect named Lucien Bernard. In a time of true economic strife and rations in the city, Lucien is commissioned to design secret hiding places in homes to hide wealthy Jews to prevent them from being taken by the Nazis. Although, Lucien is no way supportive of assisting the Jews, he is very hungry for money and if he can design these spaces, he is also given other jobs that can help him continue leading a rather comfortable life.
The problem is… by assisting the Jewish people he is risking his own life. The other problem is… what if he actually starts to care?
Now that you have read it, I want to say that I found the transformation of Lucien quite remarkable. In the beginning of the book, I really disliked him… a lot. He seemed very selfish and hungry for fame and fortune. Usually when I dislike a character that much, I have a hard time seeing a book through. It is the transformation of Lucien that makes this such a compelling read. I had to see what would happen to him and what would happen to those he helped.
There were many scenes were I felt my heart racing and a couple that brought tears to my eyes. As a compulsive reader, it is rare to tap into emotions like that when I am usually disconnected from plotlines. The scene with the Jewish couple who passed away due to Lucien’s faulty design, moved me to tears. The fact that they kept that secret safe even when death was certain, was a truly emotional moment for me as a reader.
Let’s dive in with a discussion with Charles Belfoure. I am so honored he agreed to answer our questions and be a part of this discussion.
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What a brilliant novel that was! I wonder if there really were hiding places like the architect in the book designed? (Cindy)
Although there were crude or makeshift hiding places in barns, attics, and at the backs of closet during the Occupation, I never came across anything like I described. I made up all these elaborate hiding places from my imagination and my architectural knowledge, but they were based on my main inspiration: priest holes in the age of Elizabeth I.
These were just temporary hiding places unlike one of the most famous, Anne Frank’s, which was a hidden apartment used for long-term living.
This book was riveting! How closely aligned was this story to actual happenings in Paris during the occupation? (Linda)
The main plot came from my imagination but the everyday events like the food rationing, priests hiding children, arrests by the Gestapo, German soldier-tourists, and French prostitutes servicing Germans all came from my research of the Occupation. I studied the way Parisians behaved – both heroically and cowardly, how they interacted with the Germans, how they were always hungry and scared of dying. I wanted to include small details of the period in the book, like how people kept rabbits for food but never ate their cats, or how they smoked cigarettes made from grass.
What a great book! Where did the author get inspiration for the story and characters? (Lisa)
The whole idea for the book came from an actual historical event during the reign of Elizabeth I, when Catholicism was outlawed and saying of mass was banned. Priests defied the ban by saying mass in manor houses out in the countryside. When the Queen’s soldiers raided the house, the priest hid in a “priest hole,” a temporary hiding place designed by a carpenter. The soldiers would search the house for hours and never find the priest who was hiding right under their noses.
Some characters in the book were inspired by real people – Adele was patterned after Coco Chanel, who was known to have slept with German officers. Father Jacques was based on the priests who hid Jewish children and were deported. Herzog was based on some information I found about a German officer who kept a diary and wrote that he was ashamed by the roundups of Jews, especially children.
The main character, Lucien, goes through a major transformation from the beginning of the book to the end of the book. Did you always have this in mind for him or did it evolve as you wrote it? (Amy)
I always had that in mind. I wanted him to undergo a moral transformation from a selfish, anti-Semitic guy to a man with a sense of humanity and courage. A main character in a novel shouldn’t be static but should change in character in some regard – from good to bad or vice versa.
Your writing has been compared to Ken Follett. Do you find your writing to be similar? What authors inspire you the most? (Amy)
I was flattered by the comparison. His book, Eye of the Needle, is one of my all-time favorites. But I don’t find my writing style to be anything like Follett’s; it isn’t nearly as polished and seamless as his prose. I’m a first-time novelist and have a long way to go to match those books.
I like authors who use their professional backgrounds to write fiction, like how John Grisham, because he’s a real-life attorney, uses his legal training for his novels, and I like his no nonsense prose style. William Golding used his experience as an English schoolmaster to write the classic Lord of the Flies. The exception to this is Anne Tyler. I’ve read all her novels because I like her insight and writing style, plus I like the references to Baltimore because I grew up there.
One of the hardest scenes for me, as a reader, was the scene when Lucien designs the “safe place,” for the Jewish couple that ends up not being safe at all once a fire is lit. It is heart-wrenching as a reader. Was that a difficult scene to write? (Amy)
When you’re writing any scene, your imagination projects you into that scene to feel and experience it. So, yes, it was tough to put myself in the shoes of the couple and try to feel how it would be to accept death, to physically stuff handkerchiefs in your mouth and keep from crying out and betraying Manet and Lucien. I wanted to show the reader an act of incredible bravery. It’s a moral turning point for Lucien when he sees that these strangers, Jews whom he really didn’t care about, would rather die such a horrible death than betray him.
Have you started thinking about your next project? Do you see yourself continuing to write historical fiction or delving into other genres? (Amy)
I’ve written the second draft of a novel about an architect in the Gilded Age in New York who is forced to become a criminal to save his family. Although that’s also historical fiction, I plan to also write contemporary novels. Because I’m an architect, I want to continue use my professional training along with my imagination to write novels that have architecture as the basis of the plot. There are some similarities between architecture and writing a novel. The basic plot idea forms the structure of the story, much like a steel skeleton holds up a building. Once the structure is up, you flesh out the story with detail and description like an architect would clad and detail the inside and outside of a building.
Thank you to Charles Belfoure for joining us today in our book club discussion. Isn’t he amazing? I was so honored that he took our questions on his book!
Our next book club pick will be announced on February 1st- stay tuned!
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What did you think of The Paris Architect? Were there any scenes that you really struggled with? Did you like the evolution of the main character of Lucien? Share your thoughts on our first book club pick below and offer recommendations for what you might like to see on our list in the upcoming year!