A Writerly Blog
I am thrilled and honored to be hosting a Q&A with a fellow author, WW2 fan and Francophile -- only Michèle had the privilege of living in France. For me, it is a pipe-dream!
Michèle Phoenix, author of Fragments of Light, digs deep into the 1940's with it's heroes and horrors. With her past experiences, is definitely qualified to write this book -- in SO many ways. Let's get to know this creative author and her process . . .
What was your writing process for Fragments of Light, Michèle?
As much as I’d like to be one of those authors who plot out their books, scene by scene, before starting the first chapter, I’m afraid I’m the opposite. A new book usual begins with a single image in my mind—a face, a location, a sound—that is so clear and so insistent that I can’t ignore it. With my first book, it was a child’s haunted expression. (It came to me while I was engaged in the glamorous task of vacuuming.) For my second book, it was the window of a castle overlooking a stream. My third novel began with the image of a painting leaning against a gravestone. I began writing my fourth after dreaming of a vintage French Citroën driving between lavender fields in Southern France.
With Fragments of Light, it began with a voice. I was holed up in a cabin in the far reaches of the Ozarks for three days, hoping that inspiration for book #5 would reveal itself to me as I sat in silence, without wifi or distractions, watching bald eagles circle overhead. I let my mind wander. I contemplated topics that are meaningful to me. I jotted down the first paragraphs of prologues I quickly deleted.
After two days, as I began to doubt that anything would happen, I began to hear voices—not audible to anyone else, but so real in their texture and tone. The first one was seven-year-old Lise’s saying, “I was dreaming of carousels the night the sky turned loud.” I had no idea who she was or how carousels would fit into the story, but I had the sense that this was a child daring to be hopeful when her world told her to be scared. She had my undivided attention. I pulled the curtains, turned off the lights, crawled into bed with my laptop and wrote the prologue in her voice, as her face, clothing and context slowly came into focus.
The story continued to reveal itself to me in the following weeks, as I carved out the time to be still and listen. I write like I watch a movie, taking “dictation” from characters who manage to surprise even me. As the two conflicts of Fragments of Light crystalized, I jotted down possible complications and outcomes—just in case I needed a prompt further on in the process. For Ceelie’s character, I outlined potential stages of reconciliation, holding them loosely as I wanted to give her the power to direct her own path. For Cal’s, it was an episodal series of increasing tension. His timeline is so short—only three days in 1944—so I needed to make sure his scenes played out meticulously and ended with mini-cliffhangers.
I never write the epilogue until I’m certain that the story is solid. The satisfaction of finally getting around to it after months of editing is something difficult to put into words.
Wow. That gave me chills, Michèle! To think an image appears and voilà, you're on your way. You mentioned that some aspects of the story manage to surprise even you, the writer. What were some of those in Fragments of Light?
I’ll just give you a handful. One was the character of Buck. I didn’t expect him to enter the story or to play such a pivotal role. Claire wasn’t in my planning for the book either, but she became the anchor point I needed to convey its message. The Walking Liberty entered the plot after a friend showed me his coin collection. Darlene’s assortment of garden gnomes—I never saw that coming! (A few months into the writing, I actually came across a small, brick-carrying gnome in an antique mall in South Carolina! I love it when serendipity validates inspiration.) And that final scene before the epilogue. It’s short. It doesn’t involve major characters. But it still makes me weep when I reread it.
Those are poignant times in the life of an author. So, where is your favorite place to write?
For minor editing, I’ll go to my favorite local coffee shop. But for heavy-duty writing, it’s my guest bedroom’s bed—blackout curtains pulled, so the room is completely dark, a pile of pillows and down comforters surrounding me, a small fan running on low, some essential oils and a cup of chai tea. It’s a calming, enveloping cocoon in which my imagination can freely wander and time doesn’t matter.
That environment sounds like an invitation to write! Tell us why you spent so much time on research for Fragments of Light?
WWII depictions often romanticize the events that happened on and after June 6, 1944. With Fragments of Light, I wanted to crawl inside the mind of a paratrooper who jumped over Normandy on D-Day and relate his experiences in a more intimate way. Every detail of what he saw, heard and felt was important to crafting Cal McElway—an average American soldier thrust into a chaotic conflict, who endured the type of first-person tragedy we don’t usually think of when we recall the liberation of France. I was less interested in him being a hero than in him being authentic. That takes meticulous attention to detail and context.
To ensure that I accurately described a paratrooper’s perspective of D-Day, I enlisted the help of WWII veteran Sergeant Tom Rice. He advised me on the military elements of the novel—from GI weaponry to the interior of a C-47 to jump protocol. I even included part of Tom’s own experience in Cal’s storyline: getting caught up on the jump door as he leapt out of the plane. I am so very honored by his participation in this novel. The historical legitimacy he lends to Fragments of Light is an immeasurable gift.
What prompted you to address breast cancer in Fragments of Light?
I’m a two-time survivor. Just over two years ago, I awoke in the hospital and listened dumbfounded as my surgeon informed me that the mastectomy I’d chosen to prevent a recurrence had actually revealed malignant tumors. We’ve become so much better at openly discussing breast cancer as a society, and I’m grateful that it has become less taboo. We recognize the courage of life-altering decisions about surgeries and treatments. We celebrate the fighters with fundraisers and bumper stickers and pink ribbons. But we still fall short in sufficiently recognizing the toll a medical crisis can take not only on the patient, but on the loved one walking alongside her.
That’s why I wanted to address the disease in Fragments of Light. It’s also why I brought Nate into the story. As painful as Ceelie’s own journey is, the parallel path Nate takes changes him too. He has my heart. I love his courage, confusion, vulnerability and determination. He embodies the too-often-ignored attrition of caregivers whose role in a patient’s survival can be just as taxing, though in different ways.
It benefits others when God uses our experiences as we develop our characters, as difficult as those experiences can be. Thank you, Michèle for being willing to be vulnerable with us. So, you’ve written two books that feature WWII. What is your connection to those years of the world’s history?
I grew up in France, in a small, idyllic village just outside Paris, in which Nazi forces set up the only Lebensborn on French soil—a “baby factory” of sorts. No one ever spoke about that chapter in Lamorlaye’s history while I was growing up. I actually attended 7th and 8th grade in the converted manor that had housed the German birthing center and discovered what it had been only decades later, as I did research for Tangled Ashes.
As an adult, I moved to Germany and taught for twenty years at an international school. This only deepened my fascination with the war. Living among kind-hearted German people while taking field trips to mountainside trenches and a French concentration camp just across the border—it all fueled my desire to understand the human dynamics and individual costs of the war, neither of which are often mentioned in the WWII summaries of history books.
In 2018, The Girl Who Wore Freedom, a documentary filming in Normandy that summer, asked me to come along as a translator for the shoot. I had no idea how that experience would inform Cal’s story in Fragments of Light. I’d already begun writing the novel when I went, but staying in the places where the brutal battles had raged, looking into the faces of veterans as they retold their stories and entering into relationship with the elderly French people who had watched the Allies liberate their land—it was sobering, galvanizing and inspiring. I’ve scattered their faces and names across the pages of this novel.
You truly "lived the story", Michèle, and what an amazing opportunity to work with the crew of "Girl Who Wore Freedom"! In that light, with all the time you spend in Normandy as you were writing, what are some of the real details of the places you saw and people you met that you included in the book?
So many of them! The story Flo, the BnB owner, tells about her mom collecting candy from Gis in her apron as they advanced through her village on June 6, 1944, is my friend Dany’s experience as a 6-year-old on that day. I met a young woman at the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer who was traveling with her WWII-veteran grandfather, just as Gina and Buck do in the book. My friend Francine lives in a castle where a German bullet is still lodged just a few inches beneath an upstairs windowsill. So many real Normandy places have carved out a tender spot in my heart—the tiny village of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, the American Cemetery and its sobering row of crosses, Utah Beach and that beautiful countryside with endless skies. The Norman people are France’s best ambassadors, and I’ve included the names of many of the friends I made there in the novel.
That is first-hand experience on another level! Michèle, what is one word that summarizes Fragments of Light for you?
Brave. The original title of the book was actually Chasing Brave! There are so many facets of bravery in both the contemporary and historic storylines of Fragments of Light. Ceelie’s bruised resilience. Darlene’s rugged optimism. Nate’s white-knuckled determination. Sabine’s beyond-her-years stoicism. Even Cal, whose decision after returning home from the war paints him as something of an antihero, displays a flawed sort of courage, a sacrificial commitment to what he thought was right under unfathomable circumstances.
All of the book’s protagonists embody their own version of “brave”—a resolve that plays out in brutal scenes of conflict and in small, ordinary, deeply human moments.
One last question: How does it feel to see this novel finally getting into the hands of readers?
It’s been such a long process, which makes its launch all the more exciting. I can’t wait for readers to get to know Ceelie, Nate, Darlene, Cal, Sabine and Lise. My deepest hope is that they will love them as I do—that they’ll resonate in some way with their challenges, will cheer for them as they reach toward healing, and will care for them long after they turn the final page.
What a privilege to participate in your launch team, Michèle, and share this insightful historical novel. Thank you for being willing -- and may the Lord inspire you to write many more deep and touching novels in the future. I will be waiting and watching!
Since I adore historical fiction, I have interviewed other authors in past posts. Check out my latest for: Legacy of Mercy by Lynn Austin, Daughter of Rome by Tessa Afshar, and Isaiah's Legacy by Mesu Andrews.
Do you have the title of a favorite historical novel you love? Share it below in the comments!
My MG Biblical fiction "The Heart Changer" debuted in 2019 with Ambassador International.