Like she often does, best-selling Australian author Fiona McIntosh and husband Ian were on an information gathering expedition for Fiona’s latest book when an accidental encounter inspired The Champagne War.
“We were walking down the famous Avenue de Champagne in Epernay in France when I met this glorious woman Sophie Signolle. The more I talked to her, the more I realised I was talking to my character and everything she was saying smacked of my proposed character Sophie Delancre,” McIntosh tells Have a Go News.
“Sophie is modelled on several very strong women in the early centuries of Champagne – Veuve Clicquot and Madame Pommery, but she is mostly inspired by another Sophie, a sixth-generation champenoise. I literally ran into her; I was walking up the Avenue de Champagne trying to get inspired with no real plans for the story when I was captivated by this beautiful house. All the other houses in the street were very ostentatious but this was a quiet little house, it looked like a country manor and was very pretty.
“I was taking photographs and there were some tradies working outside. One of them came to talk to us and I realised it was a woman and we apologised but she invited us inside, saying she was the owner. She was wearing jeans with paint all over her and her hair bundled up and opened a bottle of champagne.
“I fell in love with this woman, a widow, and very daring with the flavours she tries with her champagne, a sixth generation champenoise inherited from her father. She learnt how to make champagne at his knee, walked the vineyards with him as a little girl and learnt about growing grapes and it was just irresistible.
“I said: ‘Sophie I am going to write about you’ and she said: well make sure I have a torrid love affair please, I must have a massive affair with a glorious man.
I said: ‘done.’”
“I do love a bit of a love triangle, I can’t help myself.”
The Champagne War is a journey from war-torn Ypres to the sun-kissed vineyards of southern France, exploring the alchemy behind champagne and the heartbreaking realities of war, set in the summer of 1914, when vigneron Jerome Mea heads off to war.
His new bride, Sophie, a fifth generation and rebellious champenoise, is determined to ensure the forthcoming vintages will be testament to their love and the power of the people of Epernay. But Jerome disappears and life changes for Sophie, who never gives up hope of finding him.
Injured British chemist Charles Nash comes to Reims where Sophie has helped set up an underground hospital and the pair are attracted to each other. Her scheming brother-in-law Louis has his own plans.
“I do love a bit of a love triangle, I can’t help myself,” McIntosh says.
“Charlie is such a melancholy character but he is sort of irresistible. Like Sophie, you want to put your arms around him and say, ‘it’s going to be alright’. He is an interesting character and adds darkness to her light, just as the harrowing battle scenes were counterbalanced when the reader is with Sophie and talking about champagne and grapes.
“When my Sophie, the real Sophie, talks about champagne she gets almost misty eyed and there is almost a romantic attitude to what she is doing, I tried to capture this in the story but the grapes become personalities and that adds a lightness and froth to otherwise quite harrowing scenes.
“I needed that there, it was a lovely job to balance out the darkness with this light. It is a book for these times, you have to be resilient and deep, you can’t solve it but you have to survive it, which is what we are all trying to do through this COVID year.
“There are so many aspects to this book, understanding the theatre of World War I, the battles in the region and where all the soldiers came from. I had to understand the era itself, what people were like, what they were eating and doing and how they coped and survived.
“How did they make champagne in that time and under war conditions. There were so many layers, I thought I was going mad with so much to juggle.
“But it’s important you stay the course because the whole aim of the historical writer is to put the reader into a bubble that they feel they are walking with these characters in that time and they can believe everything feels real and credible.”
McIntosh, who lives in a small farm in the ‘middle of nowhere’ in South Australia, says she has written two books this year because of COVID constraints.
“I would normally find this an impossible task but we couldn’t go anywhere which puts pressure on future books.”
A new book, Mirror Man, a 2021 crime novel, the third in the Jack Hawksworth series, is being edited and an historical release, The Spy’s Wife, is due for release late next year.
“Normally I would be in Germany and Britain doing research but I’m a bit hamstrung. I’m relying on information gathered there earlier this year when I bolted home before the doors closed on Australia. The 2022 book will probably be a book set in Australia.”
The Champagne War (Michael Joseph, $33) is out now.