Interview with Rachel McMillan, author of The London Restoration

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of reading an advance copy of Rachel McMillan’s much-anticipated new novel, The London Restoration. I loved every word of it. The lush descriptions of  post-World War II London. The impeccable sense of time and place. And the romance—as much between the author and the city’s architecture as it is between protagonists, Brent and Diana Somerville, a married couple who must reconnect and rebuild after having each served their country in life-altering ways.

The London Restoration is finally out this week, available wherever books are sold. To celebrate, Rachel has stopped by for an interview!

 The secrets that might save a nation could shatter a marriage.

Madly in love, Diana Foyle and Brent Somerville married in London as the bombs of World War II dropped on their beloved city. Without time for a honeymoon, the couple spent the next four years apart. Diana, an architectural historian, took a top-secret intelligence post at Bletchley Park. Brent, a professor of theology at King’s College, believed his wife was working for the Foreign Office as a translator when he was injured in an attack on the European front.

Now that the war is over, the Somervilles’ long-anticipated reunion is strained by everything they cannot speak of. Diana’s extensive knowledge of London’s churches could help bring down a Russian agent named Eternity. She’s eager to help MI6 thwart Communist efforts to start a new war, but because of the Official Secrets Act, Diana can’t tell Brent the truth about her work.

Determined to save their marriage and rebuild the city they call home, Diana and Brent’s love is put to the ultimate test as they navigate the rubble of war and the ruins of broken trust.

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INTERVIEW WITH RACHEL MCMILLAN

Your books always have such a firm sense of time and place. What inspired you to write a novel set in Post-World War II London?

I actually had no intention of ever writing the WWII era even though I truly love reading all historical periods. Then, a few summers ago, I was in London on vacation. I studied in England for a bit in university so had already been to the city frequently then, but made a list of a few old buildings I had never been to: one was the church of St Bartholomew the Great in the neighbourhood of West Smithfield and the other was All Hallows by the Tower, adjacent to the Tower of London.

Great St Bart’s (as the former is called) boasts a gatehouse that is from the time of the Great Fire of London which really fascinated me. More still, it was just behind the church that William Wallace (of Braveheart fame) was drawn and quartered. I was in awe of that church. When I stepped inside a building that was almost 1000 years old and had survived! It was a really intense moment for me. This church had seen such history. It withstood Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, near ruin and decay in the Victorian era, the zeppelins of WWI and even the Blitz. I was so overcome that such a reverent, hallowed place founded by a man who was convicted to devote his life to charity and medicine for the impoverished had witnessed incredible history: within and without.

Then, at All Hallows by the Tower, I was overcome by a church that was blasted to near ruin on what Londoner’s called The Longest Night or the Second Great Fire of London. But while the Blitz destroyed its architectural history and facade, it also exhumed Roman ruins from the time, centuries ago, that London was known as Londinium: A Roman city.

I thought it was rather remarkable that out of such devastation priceless historical treasures and artifacts were found. That the bombs also gave way to the unearthing of parts of the original City gates.

Needless to say, my vacation of no writing was over, and my notebook was already flowing with ideas. I always tell people I don’t create characters I meet them. During that trip to St Bart’s I met Brent and Diana. I was passionate about how the parallel between the Great Fire and architect Christopher Wren’s immediate plans to rebuild the city afterwards and how the fire from the sky of the Blitz mirrored his efforts when London (just after the war) instituted its grading system to preserve and protect its most significant historical buildings: many of them churches. I knew that the publishing world probably wouldn’t take too keenly to a novel set in Christopher Wren’s time period ( at least not the sales departments), so how then could I start writing about these churches? World War II seemed to be happily in the zeitgeist of publishing trends… so I just found a different path into it while honouring the inspiration I felt.

In your previous books, like Murder at the Flamingo or Love in Three Quarter Time, the couples meet and fall in love through the course of the novel. Was it a challenge to write a romance with a couple who are already married at the beginning of the story?

It wasn’t as difficult as it might have been when I realized that even though they had fallen in love as one version of themselves, they needed to commit to falling in love again after four years apart. I enjoyed writing a couple who was established before the war. That they didn’t just “hook up” so to speak and mouth their vows quickly before they went in opposite directions. However, even with this grounding, I knew that their marriage vows were one thing and that the gap between them and the individuals they become while apart, was a major thing.  Divorce rates soared after the Second World War. 

For me, the greatest love story reflected the love Diana has for seeing the wrecked churches she studies as an architectural historian and loves rebuilt: even if they bore their scars, even if they would never look exactly as perfect as they had been before she left them. Diana and Brent have to work twice as hard to fall in love again after the war. They have to compete with the idyllic versions of each other they formed in memory to withstand the long years apart.  This made their love story far more complicated but also, I hope, more realistic and more potent.  And, for me, as a die-hard romantic, more romantic.  It was challenging, yes, but once I found their rhythm, I was so in love with a story that started where usually the end violin music would swell.  The reunion is one thing, the day to day with a changed person whom you committed body and soul to was another. 

There is so much history in The London Restoration. How much research did the story require?

I tend to think that only 1/3 of the research I do for each book I write ends up in the final version. I was fortunate in that I had an overall understanding of the Second World War from a socio and cultural perspective from family stories and photographs and from shows like Foyle’s War that afforded me a look into the clothes and day to day life –especially in England. Ration cards, the wireless, cosmetics and hair styles, etc.,. But with each book I write, I start from that overarching place and then zoom in on the research inherent to each book and I knew, with The London Restoration, that there were three major components vital to the creation of the story world: Post War London, Soviet Sympathy and the rise of the Cold War, the codebreaking world of Bletchley Park and, of course, the rich architectural legacy of London’s churches, most notably those designed by Christopher Wren.

I am lucky that I live in a city ( Toronto) where I have vast printed resources available to me: including maps of Blitz-bombed areas and rezoning and even facsimiles of Wren’s early blue prints. My books always constitute two types of research: everything I can scour in resources and print from books and the library and on-location research.  I returned to London a year after the vacation that found me wandering those integral churches for ten days of pure location research and on location writing.  I spent hours at Bletchley Park (where Diana works during the war) and I visited over 30 churches( mostly Wren designed ) to learn of their reconstruction. More still, I roamed the streets to get a sense of what Brent and Diana’s world would look like. As much as I can, I write descriptive scenes on location: meaning that I will walk for hours and hours, stop to snap photos, cross reference current maps against the maps that reflect the world I am writing as it was during the time I was set and basically capture a snapshot.

Location, to me, is as integral as characters and so I see the cities and places in my mind as just as important as the people who I flourish on page. A rambly way of saying: countless hours were involved in reading and walking and reading and consulting and getting a view of the many different facets of the world I was creating. 

What was the most surprising thing you learned about post-war London during your research?

One thing that fascinated me was that the rebuilding plans and reconstruction efforts were mapped out during the war years for implementation after. There were committees working while the bombs dropped to pick up the pieces afterwards. I was also stunned by how long the rations went on: not only food ( there was a great flour shortage after the war and poor crops) but also clothing and sugar. Things did not return to normal just because Victory was celebrated and the guns stopped. 

I loved seeing how social security and welfare was changed by the war. That it took devastation to unearth some of the major gaps in society and instigate reform.  Though women were still expected to return to their homes to free up work space for the men who returned.  I cannot imagine how it would be to devote years of your life toward something far greater than yourself only to be told to tuck it under your cap and keep calm and carry on.  I hope that I reflect this in Diana who is a brilliant and active mind in her role at Bletchley only to be expected to return to the kitchen and keeping Brent’s meal warm. 

Finally, and this isn’t post War but I must talk about it: the St. Paul’s Watch was one of my favourite unearthed researched facts.  Churchill was adamant that St. Paul’s Cathedral’s stand even through the treachery of the Blitz and the bombs falling from the sky. He was certain that the protection of the Cathedral ( until the 60s it was the tallest building in the London skyline) be preserved for morale. So men and women risked their lives  standing ready with water buckets and hoses to ensure that even as the bombs raged Wren’s masterpiece stood.  I find this a wonderful testament to the resilience of Londoners and a great emblem of how we can persevere in trying times:  even this year (which has been a monumental test to so many).

In addition to Brent and Diana Somerville, The London Restoration also introduces us to Sophia Huntington Villiers and Simon Barre—the lead characters in your next novel, The Mozart Code. What can we expect in their story?     

I have always ALWAYS loved the marriage of convenience trope ( it’s my favourite in romance and why I so love some of yours, Mimi: especially The Work of Art and The Matrimonial Advertisement) and luckily (though I pursued it in a contemporary romance, Rose in Three Quarter Time), I get to play with it in a historical time frame here.   When I set out to crafting the proposal for The London Restoration to my publisher, I hadn’t intended to write another story in its world. But that is only because I hadn’t really met Simon Barre beyond his role as a plot point for Diana and Brent.   

There’s a scene in London Restoration, when Diana meets Simon (her Bletchley supervisor and MI 6 handler) at The Savoy for tea. I remember writing that scene and describing Simon as someone to whom the world of that glitz and glamour fit like a bespoke suit. In that moment, I knew Simon’s backstory. I knew he was the illegitimate son and heir to a vast fortune who knew that his legacy would never result in his familial acceptance so he set his life to finding a legacy through his contributions to Britain: during the war at Bletchley and thereafter with MI 6.

I unashamedly read many, many, many romances featuring dukes and ladies and with Simon I knew I could tap into this world. That’s why, The Mozart Code (a companion to The London Restoration  while not a direct sequel) is something I pitched as The Alice Network meets Downton Abbey. So readers can expect grand estate hunting parties befitting both Simon and Sophie’s illustrious backgrounds as well as more Bletchley Park codebreaking (Bletchley and MI 6 actually favoured young women descended from titles and affluent backgrounds as they assumed they were trustworthy) as well as deep dive into Cold War era Vienna and Prague: both renowned as cities of spies. But, within that world of dark shadows and inquisition and secrets that are worth more than lives to prevent another war, there is also restitution and beauty. 

Just as The London Restoration speaks to the rebuilding of the gorgeous bombed architecture of the city, so The Mozart Code finds those whose priceless national treasures were dispelled by Nazis, aching to return them in pursuit of nationalistic pride.  One such relic is the death mask of Mozart. Yet, and most importantly, The Mozart Code is a love story and perhaps the most passionate and visceral one I have penned to date. Sophie and Simon are kinetic energy.  They marry to save an estate and yet to pursue their love they each have to blast through the tragedy of their individual pasts and perhaps, most potently, their stubborn pride and independence. The sacrifices they make for each other floor me. I think they may be my favourite couple I’ve scribbled to date. And, of course, the canvas for their story–Vienna and Prague– loan the most delicious and eerie atmospheres.

Rachel McMillan is a keen history enthusiast and a lifelong bibliophile. When not writing or reading, she can most often be found drinking tea and watching British miniseries. Rachel lives in bustling Toronto, where she works in educational publishing and pursues her passion for art, literature, music, and theater.

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