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Talking Location with Eve McDonnell, author of The Chestnut Roaster – PARIS

20th November 2022

#TalkingLocationWith... Eve McDonnell, author of The Chestnut Roaster – PARIS

The celebrate the publication of her newest middle grade novel, The Chestnut Roaster, Eve McDonnell has dropped by the Tiny TripFiction blog to tell us about the riveting Parisian backdrop that’s inspired her writing.

📍 Follow along Eve’s literary footsteps through Paris with this handy Google Map here!

Eve McDonnell, author of The Chestnut Roaster I once found a leaf skeleton, and as I stared at its tiny golden veins, each squirming and crisscrossing like a maze of tunnels, I wondered if, in fact, I had discovered a map to a mysterious underground world. It brought my thoughts to Paris’s underground twin – over 200 miles of intriguing, history-rich tunnels that lie beneath the bustling city. I knew I had found the setting for my next book – The Chestnut Roaster.

It had been some time since I had visited the City of Lights and any plans to go again had been scuppered by travel restrictions, but I could still clearly recall the scent of roasting chestnuts, hooking me hug-like, on the corner of Rue du Dragon, and I instantly knew my twelve-year-old chestnut roaster character, Piaf Durand, would begin her adventure right there.

Piaf’s journey brings her on a full circle of Paris, both overground and under. Following publication of The Chestnut Roaster, I visited the city, but this time I used her story as a guide. Tracing her footsteps (and my rumbling tummy), the first stop was 📍Les Deux Magots at Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, a stone’s throw from Piaf’s chestnut roasting corner at Rue du Dragon. Founded in 1812, the name of the café (meaning ‘the two figurines’) came from the signage of a novelty shop that once occupied the same location. The café has been a hub for Paris’s artists and writers over the years, no doubt down to the delicious desserts on offer. They might be outrageously expensive, but they are outrageously good!

Eve McDonnell, author of The Chestnut Roaster

Les Deux Magot, Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés

Piaf’s adventure then brings us to Paris’s most spectacular royal chapel – 📍Sainte-Chapelle on the Île de la Cité in the River Seine. Construction of this gothic marvel began sometime after 1238 and it was built in an impressive seven years. The main chapel is found on the second floor via a tight, winding stone stairwell, the footsteps of countless others having sloped the edge of each step. I touch the cold surface of the deep window ledge where Piaf hides in her story before opening my eyes and heart wide at the view that meets me at the top.

The chapel, with its forest of stained glass windows, each 15 meters (!) high, is magnificent. It was built to house a collection of precious Christian relics and they were placed inside a large ‘cabinet’ known as the Grande Châsse. It is said that this châsse cost more than the chapel itself, and had ten locks and could only be opened by royalty. Piaf plays a dangerous game of hide and seek inside this châsse, however I was unable to see it as the cabinet was sadly melted down during the French Revolution.

Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

Piaf continues her journey, sprinting past the 📍Préfecture de Police and the great arches of one of the world’s oldest hospitals, 📍Hôtel Dieu, where her brother was held in its basement asylum. I follow her footsteps along Rue de le Cité until I arrive at the great Notre-Dame. It’s twin-towered façade is brutal and strong, adorned with a gallery of serious statues overlooked by the ever-watchful gargoyles and chimeras. Of course, I cannot go inside. The repairs are in full swing following the momentous fire that ripped through the cathedral in 2019, and boarding at its base prevents me from standing on the lucky spot – a metal star in the ground known as 📍Point zéro des routes de France – where Piaf enters Paris’s underground twin.

To get a taste of the excavated tunnels where Piaf’s adventure escalates into one of great danger and excitement, I travel to Montparnasse to visit 📍Les Catacombes de Paris. There, I climb down 131 steps to a depth of 20 meters, and suddenly I am in another world.

The underground maze of tunnels, some barely big enough to wriggle through, often echo the layout of the streets overhead – many even have street names from above etched out in their walls – but it is a far cry from the sparkling richness of the city above. These underground quarries were the birthplace of the stone used to build many of the great buildings of Paris.

Eve McDonnell, author of The Chestnut Roaster

Les Catacombes de Paris

Though the existence of the underground city comes as some surprise to Piaf in The Chestnut Roaster, the tunnels made their presence known throughout Parisian history. In the 1770s, a deadly sinkhole known as the ‘Mouth of Hell’ swallowed houses at Rue d’Enfer. A few years on, the hidden chambers were used as burial sites during the French Revolution, and later, during World War II, the French Resistance fighters used the dark and deep tunnels as hideouts while other chambers were converted into bunkers by German soldiers. Secret parties and concerts were held underground, explorers explored, and artists left their mark with wild and wonderful murals.

The small section I visit has some very strange inhabitants indeed – the bones of six million people! At the end of the 18th Century, Paris’s cemeteries were overflowing. The streets held the stench of corpses, bones collapsed into neighbouring buildings. By cover of night, the corpses were carried by horse and black cloth-covered wagons to the Catacombs where workers fashioned impressive displays out of the bones themselves.

Piaf’s continues her underground journey past the Bone Well, the Empire of the Dead and the Oyster Room before climbing up through a chasm to appear at the feet of 📍Tour Eiffel, then under construction. The Eiffel Tower is a must-see for any visitor to Paris – you can choose to climb its steps to the second floor and then take a lift to the top, or do as I did and take the old lift all the way.

A coffee-stop later, I take a long walk by the Seine, imagining Piaf running along the ‘main vein’ tunnel beneath my feet, until I reach the 📍Jardin des Tuileries, nestled between the Louvre and the Place de la Concorde. The avenues of chestnut trees (albeit of the horse, and not sweet, kind!) were the harvesting grounds for Piaf. And as luck would have it, it is the precise spot where I find a lone chestnut roaster. The smell of roasting chestnuts hooks me. I peel back the hard shell, sink my teeth into the chestnut’s flesh, and think about Piaf.

Jardin des Tuileries

~ Eve McDonnell

 

Eve McDonnell is a children’s book writer and artist based in Wexford, Ireland. When her head is not stuck in a middle-grade story, she enjoys helping out at workshops and painting everything from rather grown-up pieces to children’s murals. Her debut, Elsetime, won the the Wells Festival of Literature Children’s Book Award and has been shortlisted for the Awesome Book Award 2022.

Twitter @Eve_Mc_Donnell | startsomewhereblogbyeve.wordpress.com/

The Chestnut Roaster is published by Everything With Words and out now.

 

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