Published in the Sunday Times
The Spy (Penguin Random House)
Why did you choose Mata Hari as the subject for your new novel?
Mata Hari was one of the icons of the hippie generation – the bad girl, the different, the stranger, wearing those fancy dresses – and we were all fascinated by her. I was having dinner with my lawyer, and he mentioned the many cases of innocent people who were condemned to death during World War I, which we are only learning about now because they are declassifying wartime documents. Mata Hari was only one of his examples, but because she had always interested me, I did some quick research. The next day I bought some books and spent my weekend compulsively reading anything about Mata Hari. I did not know then that I was (sort of) doing research for a book; I only realised it when I decided, as an exercise of imagination, to put myself in her shoes.
How did you research her life and that era? What did you find most surprising about her life?
The most surprising thing is how a woman who had been abused till she was 20 could overcome this situation and become who she became. As for the Belle Époque Paris, it was an era of “everything is possible”. I was intrigued by it, and I worked to keep the book centered in its main character. The tendency of a writer is to describe too much. I give an idea about her era, and I try to situate the reader without overloading them with information.
Where did you stray from the historical record, and why?
The facts in the book are correct, the historical track is correct, but I did put myself in the shoes of someone else. I believe I was very, very close to what she was thinking. About two months ago, a museum in the Netherlands made public some new letters of Mata Hari. One reviewer said that it was as if I had “channelled” her.
How did it feel to write from Mata Hari’s perspective?
She became my companion, night and day, while I was reading about her era. And I began to understand how, being who she was, she would justify her attitude.
What are the lessons we can learn from this complicated woman?
That 1) every dream has a price; 2) when you dare to be different, be ready to be attacked; 3) even when you face a hostile (masculine) world, you can find a way to circumvent this.
Can you imagine a different outcome for her life?
She fulfilled her destiny, and that is what counts.
- The Spy by Paulo Coelho
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